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Jessica Duchen
Wednesday 2nd December 2009
Fun Time?

Glancing through the latest edition of Pianist magazine, I was alarmed by an article from our friend Martin Prendergast, who spends most of his spare time as one heck of a terrific amateur pianist. Attending a dinner party recently, Martin writes, he was startled to find someone mouthing judgmental platitudes about his beloved hobby. Apparently being a keen pianist is self-indulgent. Which means you shouldn't do it.

Martin mounts a spirited defence, explaining some of the sacrifices he makes to keep up his expertise - he rises daily pre-lark to practise for two hours before work on a silent weighted keyboard with headphones - and he thanks those close to him for indulging his indulgence. But still...

I've encountered plenty of nastiness about predilections for playing classical music - especially when I was a music student desperate for somewhere to practise. But never, ever before have I heard of anyone being morally judgmental about someone choosing to play the piano as a hobby.

Hobbies generally are a bit self-indulgent. I mean, in the time we spend on needlepoint tapestry, sketching by the river or going on stop-the-war marches, we could be slogging more hours at the office, working ourselves into an early grave, ruining the UK's economy, or learning how to siphon off our organisation's money into our own bank accounts. Heaven forfend that we should spend any time trying to add something spiritually meaningful to our personal and individual lives. 

You ever heard of anyone being sniffily, bossily judgmental about a fellow dinner guest expressing a fondness for binge-drinking of a Friday or spending Saturday afternoon at the Emirates Stadium or gambling at the races? The notion that something more demanding can also be fun - maybe that is just too much?

Martin handled it with brilliance and diplomacy, but I wonder if it's an indication that if we're not careful we might face a sort of cultural revolution in which a pastime that requires skill, is artistic or faintly intellectual, and is carried out primarily to please ourselves, will be automatically disapproved of. And if we stop creating music, art and idealism, life generally will be that much less enjoyable and attractive.

I'd better shut up or else I'll find myself agreeing with Roger Scruton, whose programme about beauty on TV at the weekend was nearly brilliant, but not quite. The squalling out of the Pergolesi Stabat Mater in St Pancras Station wrecked it, as did his apparent inability to draw upon attitudes towards beauty in the world outside the UK, Prince Charles's model village (!), and Italy beyond the Renaissance, which could have made his best arguments even stronger. I do agree, though, that 'beauty' can be what makes life worth living. And if we have to create that beauty as amateurs rather than pros, then so be it - at least it will still exist.

Anyway, it's our choice. As long as it doesn't impinge on anyone else, it's nobody's business. If I'd been Martin, I'd have put the guy's nose in a sling.

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December 2nd, 2009
9:12 PM
I think people get sniffy about the playing-an-instrument as hobby thing because they feel inadequate in comparison. I know I've had some pretty inexplicable responses when I talk about learning the cello, outright 'well aren't we special' stuff to more honest people who admit they feel stupid about what they do in their free time. Oh well, it says a lot more about them than it does about us, as my mother would say.

Fernando castro
December 2nd, 2009
4:12 PM
It depends on what he was playing. Anything after Beethoven tends to be narcissistic and self-indulgent. I'm just sayin....

Francis Norton
December 2nd, 2009
1:12 PM
Didn't see the Scruton programme but It occurs to me that that the beauty we create *as* amateurs - the stories we tell, the meals we cook, the moments we make, in our personal lives - are in some senses even more important to what makes life worth living?

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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