Keep calm – play Brahms: a talk for International Women’s Day

Looking through some old computer files the other day, I came across a talk I gave at work three years ago, on International Women’s Day 2015. It’s odd to re-read it – especially the end, as I didn’t expect I’d have “retired” (if indeed that’s what I’ve done) a year later. But I think the comments on women and hobbies are worth sharing today, on International Women’s Day 2018. Feminism isn’t just about work!

 Photo: Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation)/CC BY-SA 2.0

Let’s start by listening to Martha Argerich – one of my heroines – playing Brahms Rhapsody in G minor.

That piece has always been a challenge to me. It was a challenge at age 17 and it’s still a challenge aged 55.

Between those ages, I became a mother and faced the challenge of combining that with policy work and its demanding hours, and I didn’t really play the piano at all.

In fact I thought hobbies were only for men. Take my husband: although he works, and took on more than his fair share of looking after our daughter, he has always kept up his hobbies too, in a way that I never thought I could. He’s always had chess and bird-watching as things that defined him – other than work and being a father.

I’ve often thought this is one of the key differences between men and women. Take Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian. Did you know he plays the piano as a hobby? He’s written a book about how he challenged himself to learn a Chopin Ballade – an even more difficult piece than the one we just heard – on 20 minutes practice a day before work. Says it helped him through the Leveson enquiry, and makes him a better editor.

I only came across his book recently, and – like my husband’s chess and bird-watching – I would once have thought that this was a “man” thing. While women could, of course, compete with men on equal terms in the world of work, hobbies were a step too far – impossible to combine with the demands of work and family.

But coming back to the piano, after a gap of over 30 years, has changed that. Three years ago – once my daughter had grown up and moved out – we moved house, I got a new piano, and I started to play again. I’ve been playing and practising – quite seriously, as I did in my teens – but in a very different way.

I actually enjoy it now, whereas in my teens I saw it as a chore: an hour a night to be done in the same way as homework. It’s a helpful counter-balance to my workaholic tendencies. I have a reason to go home in the evening; whereas previously, once my daughter had left home, I could easily stay at work indefinitely. If I got home early, I tended to get bored and the temptations of wine and chocolate were difficult to fend off.

I’ve also started piano lessons again – with a very different kind of teacher from the one I had in my youth. The title of my talk comes from a bag he very kindly bought me last Christmas: “Keep calm – play Brahms”, a slogan he designed especially for me!

I find it interesting that what I learn in piano lessons often relates to deep-seated issues about my personality: you bring all your personal baggage and habits accumulated over a lifetime to everything you do. So it’s not just about music, it’s about wider self-awareness and development.

I’ve also had a coach at work over the last few months. It’s amazing how much there is in common between what she says and what my piano teacher says: breathing deeply, relaxing etc.

And it extends into the music itself. So I’ve discovered that I find it easier to build up to play more loudly at a climax than to come down from that afterwards and gradually play softer. This is similar to the way I can build myself up quite easily – to deal with a crisis, for example – but find it more difficult to come down to normal life afterwards.

So piano lessons are a – much cheaper – kind of coaching.

But does playing Brahms – playing the piano generally – do what it says on the bag? Does it keep me calm? Generally yes, it helps to give me a different perspective, something other than work to focus on intently, and challenges me in a different way.

If I’ve got something challenging to face at work, playing the piano for even 10 minutes before I leave the house is a great way to start the day – assuming I don’t make a complete hash of it, when it could be counter-productive.

And this is where I have to watch myself. If I’m not careful I will make piano into just another kind of work. My workaholic and competitive streaks can come out at the piano too, and there’s a risk I turn it into something stressful rather than just enjoyable in itself.

It’s a tricky balance. I need to have something challenging to aim for in order to motivate myself to practise. But it mustn’t become a chore – or just an opportunity to score “achievements” – as that would defeat the point.

Playing in public is where this tension really comes to the fore. Last year I played at the local Hatfield festival: the first time in public since I was in the sixth form. And I’m doing it again this year, after Easter.

Playing for other people is a natural part of playing piano – it’s not something you do just for yourself – so I want to challenge myself to do it. But it’s nerve-racking: much scarier than telling a FTSE 100 company that we don’t like their tax behaviour! I don’t want this kind of stressful challenge to dominate, so I’ll still try to play just for pleasure as well.

I mentioned to my piano teacher that I was doing this talk, and that I’d named it after his bag. He was quite touched, but we also chatted about what I might talk about and he suggested “hobbies in later life”. I wasn’t sure how to react to that, but I suppose that is what it’s about. Retirement is only a few years away: already on the horizon.

So, finally, I’d say that playing piano has made the idea of retirement not quite so daunting. I’m almost starting to look forward to it!

[Footnote: I realise this is a hopelessly outdated take on feminism. It’s a white, middle-class, middle-aged perspective, doesn’t take on board intersectionality, nor the fact that many women have to take on several jobs just to survive. I suppose it represents “wave 2.5” – my generation’s brand of “beat the men at their own game”, except that we forget men also cultivate a life outside work. In the last couple of years I’ve started to move on from that way of thinking, with the help of @ellie_knott. But it was an approach that dominated my working life, for better or worse, and recent political events show that the battles I grew up with in the 1970s are still far from won.]


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