James Rhodes is no ordinary concert pianist. Rather than conforming to the traditional white tie and tails formalities he performs in jeans, t-shirts and trainers in venues ranging from the Roundhouse to the Royal Albert Hall.
His distinctive approach to classical piano led to him becoming the first ever pianist to be signed to the world’s largest rock label, Warner Brothers. He has released five albums in his career so far and he regularly top the iTunes classical music charts.
After meeting James in his North London flat it was clear his journey to becoming a concert pianist was as unconventional as the attire he now performs in. Despite not having any formal music education until the age of 14 and not even touching a piano from the age of 18 to 28 years old, he made it to the top.
His ascent to becoming a world class concert pianist is even more remarkable given he overcame sexual abuse as a young boy, attempted to take his own life, and spent time in a psychiatric hospital – escaping once before returning and being given the all clear. The full story is recounted in his harrowing and raw autobiography, Instrumental.
Today, James is not only a classical pianist and bestselling author, he is also a columnist for the Telegraph and Guardian newspapers and presents television programmes for Sky Arts, BBC4 and Channel 4.
What I learnt from James in his own words:
“You can learn how to physically play the piano in about an hour but then you just have to apply it and that’s where the jump is. Can you take any piece that you love and learn it? My answer is irrevocably, yes.”
“No matter how old you are or what skills you have or haven’t got there is no question in my mind that with an hour a day and the right frame of mind anyone can do it. It’s a question of logic and given time anyone can learn to read music. Anything is possible.”
“People think if they haven’t nailed it in a week there is no point continuing. They start to write a book or, play an instrument or, begin an art course and they realise after a week they are not Picasso or they don’t have an eighty thousand word novel so they just give up. To produce one album takes me thousands and thousands of hours of practise. People don’t realise its takes months, years of pain, demented heartbreak and stress and you have to really really really want something to succeed.”
“I lost my marriage, weight, dignity, house, everything and it was a huge huge gamble. I realised the piano had to be my career and it had to be a huge gamble because I knew that if I didn’t do it like that I wouldn’t do it at all. I didn’t want to go back to what was safe and secure. I knew it would make me miserable.”
“I never have days where I wake up and think I don’t want to play the piano. I have plenty of days where I wake up and think, I am playing like shit and it’s a lost cause and it’s dreadful and frustrating.”
“If you find something you are happy doing cling on to it with everything you have got. If you are dissatisfied there are always other options. I will always say to my son, be relentless in your pursuit of what delights you, what makes you laugh, what gets you out of bed with a smile on your face. I am convinced if he finds what he loves he will make a huge living from it, there is no question, once you combine your desire with fun its unstoppable.”
“I chose one instrument to focus on and I work really fucking hard at it.”
“Without sounding like a total dick, I would say, don’t ever give up and be true to yourself. It’s never as bad as you think. Nobody cares that much if you make a mistake, people are busy with their own lives”
“Do what you want to do to make you happy. Don’t do what you think you should do or what other people think you should do, just do whatever you want to do- as long as you’re not hurting anyone else.”
“I think the whole point about giving a concert is that it’s not about me playing the piano; it’s about somehow trying to get the fuck out the way so that the people who have paid to listen to it can hear Bach and Chopin, not James fucking Rhodes.”
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