I recently discovered Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication, and Music, by James Rhodes, an English Classical pianist like no other. Mr. Rhodes’ book was first published in 2015 and was released in the U.S. this year.
As part of my betterment as a musician, I read many things about music and performance specifically, and a friend led me to Mr. Rhodes’ book by way of a New York Times review of three musician memoirs. Being one that also suffers the effects of depression and a total love of music, I thought I would give Instrumental a read. And I’m glad that i did.
If I had to use one word to describe Instrumental, it’s wow… simply wow. Wow at the horrid abuse that Mr. Rhodes suffered as a child and its resultant psych and physiological carnage that it left in its wake. It is simply a testament to the human will, that of Mr. Rhodes, that he was eventually able to “come out the other side,” transforming into a successful Classical pianist along the way. I should mention that, for those who have suffered physical child abuse and mental trauma, the book is rife with triggers, which forced me to reflect on my own challenges with self-harm and depression. But in a retrospective and sharing way, knowing that, again, I’m not the only one, nor am I the worst case scenario; Mr. Rhodes’ childhood trauma is off the scales compared to my own.
If I were to use one word to describe Mr. Rhodes, it would without doubt be conqueror. He is not only a survivor of a horrid childhood, described vividly and painfully, but he is a conqueror of it. The odds were overwhelmingly stacked against him as he suffered tremendously throughout his life – I cannot imagine at all what it must have been like dealing with his demons day in and day out. But in the midst of his deepest and darkest despair, he rediscovered his love for music and, as it has done for so many, it rescued him. It’s rescuing me, which is why this book deeply touches me on a personal level.
Mr. Rhodes is a Classical pianist in label only. He was not trained in a traditionally classical way, and only came into his own later in life. He is, by all definition, a Classical rebel and proudly wears the label, eschewing everything that is wrong with inner workings of the Classical world of today. And that is why I admire him most, my being a tattooed, 54 year-old struggling to learn how to play the oboe with the hope of one day playing in an orchestra… any orchestra. It’s the rebellious in us that allows us to succeed, if we let it. Mr. Rhodes’ book, to me, is a story brimming with inspiration and wonderment; if he made it through all that shit, then perhaps, just perhaps, maybe I can as well. Music, for many of us, is the glue that holds us together; nowhere else is this more evident than in James Rhodes’ life.
A rather unique and fun way of telling the story, Mr. Rhodes has broken the chapters down into musical tracks. At the beginning of each chapter or track, he picks a Classical piece and discusses its composer, recommending where you might find the recording in the process. Enlightening, this is an extension of how Mr. Rhodes plays his concerts, engaging his audience, speaking about the compositions and the musicians behind them, including Schubert, Bach, Mozart, and Liszt. I’ve discovered several pieces that I have not listened to beforehand, including Mr. Rhodes’ own works.
One of Mr. Rhodes’ goals is to humanize Classical music, to make it available for all to hear, to break the rules, which I love and admire. His disdain for the Classical world in its current form is prevalent throughout his book, as he blows open its doors and lets in a strong gust of fresh air. He is not shy of taking on either the institution itself or its top performers, and his approach to his musical career breaks all traditions. Neither a rock star nor a classical impresario, I would call Mr. Rhodes the alternative classics performer, one bringing music to the masses. Bringing a sense of humanism to Classical music, telling the inside story in a way that his protagonist, Lang Lang, never did in his memoir. It gives musicians – and I use that term loosely – like me the hope that, hey, despite the insurmountable odds, perhaps, just perhaps, they might succeed.
I highly recommend Instrumental by James Rhodes. It is a great, in-your-face honest read, one I could not put down. Check it out… you won’t be disappointed.