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Do You Have To Nearly Kill Yourself To Become A Classical Musician?

Pianist James Rhodes.
Dave Brown
courtesy of the artist
Pianist James Rhodes.

It frankly doesn't sound like much of a rallying cry, but in a recent essay for London's Guardian newspaper, British pianist James Rhodes is encouraging folks to "commit suicide by creativity." And what method of self-murder does he advocate? Playing classical music.

Even he admits that he went to the edge and probably beyond in chasing his own dream of being a professional musician:

" ... only when the pain of not doing it got greater than the imagined pain of doing it did I somehow find the balls to pursue what I really wanted and had been obsessed by since the age of seven — to be a concert pianist.

"Admittedly I went a little extreme — no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35 lbs. in weight."

What really surprised and impressed me was how often I saw Rhodes' piece pop up in my email inbox and on my Facebook feed, accompanied by comments like "Have you seen this?" and "Wow, I love what this guy is saying" — and coming mostly from friends outside the classical music world. Playing and writing about core classical music, he's found a way to connect with a bigger audience. It's worth noting that he was signed to Warner Bros. a few years ago, though it appears that he's since been dropped by the rock label. Along with recording now for the Signum label and maintaining an active touring schedule, he's gone on to make television documentaries for BBC 4 and Sky Arts. And he recently spoke at TEDxOxford, with a provocatively and admittedly intentionally (and ridiculously) misleadingly titled talk: "Pianos, Sharks and Nazis," which opens with his idiosyncratic performance of a Rachmaninov prelude.

Rhodes is an intriguing writer (though I could do without his gratuitous slam on Americans), and his whole demeanor underscores the idea that classical music is so off-the-radar in 2013 that it's even more underground-cool than, say, indie rock. But I wonder: Are such admissions just reinforcing the stereotype that in order to be a classical musician, you have to be a wild-haired, misunderstood eccentric living apart from real time and space? Rhodes namechecks Charles Bukowski, but isn't he also resurrecting the archetypally misunderstood and alienated Romantic hero for the 21st century?

I'm not so convinced that it's necessary to make people think that personal suffering is a necessary component to making art music (or serious music or awesome music or whatever you want to call it), but I really love what Rhodes has to say about the power of simply creating.

What if for a couple of hundred quid you could get an old upright on eBay delivered? And then you were told that with the right teacher and 40 minutes proper practice a day you could learn a piece you've always wanted to play within a few short weeks. Is that not worth exploring? What if rather than a book club you joined a writer's club? Where every week you had to (really had to) bring three pages of your novel, novella, screenplay and read them aloud?

What's your read on Rhodes? Take a few minutes to read his essay and tell us what you think in the comments, on Twitter @nprclassical and on our Facebook page at nprclassical.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.