“Find What You Love and Let It Kill You”

This is my favorite of all the posts we’ve ever run on this site. (Mainly because it’s not written by me.) I read it every few months just to psych myself up. It’s an article written by English concert pianist James Rhodes that appeared originally in the Guardian (UK).

Why do I love Mr. Rhodes’ story of his bold move to change his life and become an artist?

1) Because James is a late bloomer. Much as I admire child prodigies, I hate them too because they found their calling so young and with so little agony. I like to see someone suffer before they find their way.

2) James’ saga illustrates the depth of passion that such a journey requires—and the depth of madness. (Note the casual allusion to “nine months in a mental hospital.”)

3) James’ does not romanticize his life as an artist. No, he does not sail through the day whistling and grinning. And yes, the grind is still a grind. But he has gone from working for the Man to being the Man himself.

James Rhodes, my artistic hero

My life as a concert pianist can be frustrating, lonely, demoralising and exhausting. But is it worth it? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt

James Rhodes

Friday 26 April 2013

After the inevitable “How many hours a day do you practice?” and “Show me your hands”, the most common thing people say to me when they hear I’m a pianist is “I used to play the piano as a kid. I really regret giving it up.” I imagine authors have lost count of the number of people who have told them they “always had a book inside them”. We seem to have evolved into a society of mourned and misplaced creativity. A world where people have simply surrendered to (or been beaten into submission by) the sleepwalk of work, domesticity, mortgage repayments, junk food, junk TV, junk everything, angry ex-wives, ADHD kids and the lure of eating chicken from a bucket while emailing clients at 8pm on a weekend.

Do the math. We can function—sometimes quite brilliantly—on six hours’ sleep a night. Eight hours of work was more than good enough for centuries (oh the desperate irony that we actually work longer hours since the invention of the internet and smartphones). Four hours will amply cover picking the kids up, cleaning the flat, eating, washing and the various etceteras. We are left with six hours. 360 minutes to do whatever we want. Is what we want simply to numb out and give Simon Cowell even more money? To scroll through Twitter and Facebook looking for romance, bromance, cats, weather reports, obituaries and gossip? To get nostalgically, painfully drunk in a pub where you can’t even smoke?

What if you could know everything there is to know about playing the piano in under an hour (something the late, great Glenn Gould claimed, correctly I believe, was true)? The basics of how to practise and how to read music, the physical mechanics of finger movement and posture, all the tools necessary to actually play a piece – these can be written down and imparted like a flat-pack furniture how-to-build-it manual; it then is down to you to scream and howl and hammer nails through fingers in the hope of deciphering something unutterably alien until, if you’re very lucky, you end up with something halfway resembling the end product.

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 if, rather than paying £70 a month for a gym membership that delights in making you feel fat, guilty and a world away from the man your wife married you bought a few blank canvases and some paints and spent time each day painting your version of “I love you” until you realised that any woman worth keeping would jump you then and there just for that, despite your lack of a six-pack?

I didn’t play the piano for 10 years. A decade of slow death by greed working in the City, chasing something that never existed in the first place (security, self-worth, Don Draper albeit a few inches shorter and a few women fewer). And 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 35lbs in weight. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of self-forgiveness, be “good enough.”

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And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper from the shelf at Chappell of Bond Street. Tubing it home, setting the score, pencil, coffee and ashtray on the piano and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. A piece of music that will always baffle the greatest minds in the world, that simply cannot be made sense of, that is still living and floating in the ether and will do so for yet more centuries to come. That is extraordinary. And I did that. I do it, to my continual astonishment, all the time.

The government is cutting music programmes in schools and slashing Arts grants as gleefully as a morbidly American kid in Baskin Robbins. So if only to stick it to the man, isn’t it worth fighting back in some small way? So write your damn book. Learn a Chopin prelude, get all Jackson Pollock with the kids, spend a few hours writing a Haiku. Do it because it counts even without the fanfare, the money, the fame and Heat photo-shoots that all our children now think they’re now entitled to because Harry Styles has done it.

Charles Bukowski, hero of angsty teenagers the world over, instructs us to “find what you love and let it kill you“. Suicide by creativity is something perhaps to aspire to in an age where more people know Katie Price better than the Emperor concerto.

theguardian.com Copyright (c) Guardian News and Media Limited. 2014 Registered in England.


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  1. Mary Doyle on August 26, 2015 at 5:19 am

    Brilliant! I remember the first time you posted this, and it’s worthy of a repeat. “…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.” That says it all – thanks Steve!

  2. David Thompson on August 26, 2015 at 5:56 am

    It is good to reread this piece regularly, perhaps monthly or quarterly (more frequently would probably be numbing to the impact).

    Once again, it brought tears to my eyes. Once again, I’m reminded to go reread “War of Art” once again, because I need to. Once again, I’m reminded to retrieve guitar or camera from the case and to do “something,” perhaps “anything” with those tools to work on their craft.

    Yep… this is a good reminder. Thank you, sir!

  3. Shannon on August 26, 2015 at 6:41 am

    Thank you from my heart. I needed that!

  4. Stacey Hylen on August 26, 2015 at 7:09 am

    Thank you!!!

  5. Erika Viktor on August 26, 2015 at 7:11 am

    When I was a child I had a dream. As an adult I realized that if I want it, I have to give up almost everything to achieve it. We live in a crazy competitive world. Why fight for someone else’s dream when we can live in our minivans and eat .39 cent tacos for every meal? Can I move into a storage unit? My mom’s basement? Should I sell everything I own? All for the art? My best friend always says: “You can get to 90% and it’s still fun, but you won’t be much good. To be good you have to give your life to that last 10%.”

  6. Patti on August 26, 2015 at 7:14 am

    It made me cry. Thank you. And tomorrow when I go back to the soul sucking job I’ll now have something I can secretly refer to (on my breaks)…and maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a loud enough voice screaming inside of my head that’ll give me the courage to get back to working on my dream just one more time.
    PS: actually the nine months he spent in the mental institution was an Eye-opener…I totally get the going crazy part…it can either happen while stifling our creativity or becoming so consumed the rest of our existence falls apart.

  7. David Ward on August 26, 2015 at 7:21 am

    i just want to repeat something that shannon said above: thank you from my heart.

  8. Lynda on August 26, 2015 at 8:35 am

    “Do it because it counts”

    As a late bloomer who has felt the madness, thank you for this fabulous insight.

  9. Valerie on August 26, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you Steven for, as always, for making me realize I’m not alone in this insanity.

  10. Brion on August 26, 2015 at 9:43 am

    Wonderful article! Thanks for sharing it. Full of emotion and passion.

  11. Genevieve Castelino on August 26, 2015 at 9:56 am

    That gave me goosebumps from my head down to my toes. Thank you for that inspiring read. Thank you!

  12. Leanne Regalla on August 26, 2015 at 9:57 am

    I agree. I love this and can totally relate to it. I was also a late bloomer in both music and writing, and I’m always encouraging my students and clients not to give up because they think it’s too late for them.

    Important stuff here – sharing! 🙂

  13. Adam Thomas on August 26, 2015 at 11:26 am

    Something I need to read often. Thanks for the repost.

  14. Krista on August 26, 2015 at 11:31 am

    Amazeballs! Thank you for sharing that article… It definitely is a great reminder and I see why you always refer back to it every so often.

  15. Neal Martin on August 26, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Very inspiring reading. I think any creative person can identify with that. Especially the pain of not doing something. That’s always been my main motivation as a writer.

  16. BING on August 26, 2015 at 8:05 pm

    Thank you

    Love Bing

  17. AM Gray on August 26, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    Just in case you haven’t seen it – the cartoon from Zen pencils for James…

  18. Sherri Stockdale on August 27, 2015 at 4:29 am

    this is the best thing that I’ve read in a lot
    No time. Soon enough today will be yesterday…. Put down the iPad. Pick up the pencil. Repeat

  19. Sonja on August 27, 2015 at 6:38 am

    I remember this article! Thanks for re-sharing. As always, you make me feel less alone and less crazy. This was so affirming that I’ve actually sought him out and heard him speak on YouTube. He’s fantastic and truly (truly) understands what it’s like in the trenches….thanks, again.

  20. Brian on August 27, 2015 at 7:29 am

    I love how he completely destroys our cultural myth of happiness:
    “A world where people have simply surrendered to (or been beaten into submission by) the sleepwalk of work, domesticity, mortgage repayments, junk food, junk TV, junk everything, angry ex-wives, ADHD kids and the lure of eating chicken from a bucket while emailing clients at 8pm on a weekend.”

    And, “Is what we want simply to numb out and give Simon Cowell even more money? To scroll through Twitter and Facebook looking for romance, bromance, cats, weather reports, obituaries and gossip? To get nostalgically, painfully drunk in a pub where you can’t even smoke?”

    It is a choice between easy & hard. Getting fat is easy. Divorce, porn, Ashley Madison is easy. Netflix binges are easy.

    Creation is hard. Marriage is hard. Mastery of self, art, anything is hard.

    The child in me wishes it otherwise…

  21. Joe on August 27, 2015 at 10:12 pm

    Man, does this speak to me tonight. Transitioning from one career to the crap shoot of writing, writing, writing – and I’ve never been happier. Thank you James Rhodes.

  22. Stacy on August 28, 2015 at 7:09 am

    I am in a position where I can say YES to this. Perhaps I always was.

  23. Keena on August 28, 2015 at 10:44 am

    Love this. Thank you! It was exactly what I needed to hear as I’ve gotten to the point of the pain of not doing is now greater than the pain of doing. That and the kids are now “leaving the nest”.

    Funny, and perhaps ironic, typo: “a morbidly American kid.” Meant to be “morbidly obese,” perhaps? 😉

    Thanks again!

    • David Ward on September 4, 2015 at 7:01 am

      i don’t believe it is a typo at all, keena.

      with respect,

  24. Jasvir Samrai on August 28, 2015 at 7:52 pm

    I went on to do some further reading on the background of Mr Rhodes and was taken aback by his pain, courage and fierce determination to fulfill his true potential. From what I read I believe his musical talents were not his calling but his salvation. May the Gods protect and support him ever more.

  25. Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com on August 29, 2015 at 9:18 am

    I just found this today and am re-inspired. “Suicide by creativity” is brilliant and there are far more worse ways to go….

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