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James Rhodes – Instrumental

Book Cover

Instru, mental (health), and music.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 264
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-11337-9
First Published: 28th May 2015
Date Reviewed: 20th October 2015
Rating: 5/5

On paper, James Rhodes had a privileged childhood. He went to posh prep schools and later to Harrow. In reality, his first years were marred by sexual abuse. Now a fairly successful pianist, Rhodes looks back on his past, the multiple mental illnesses he developed that stifled any happiness and success for a long while and saw him hospitalised, and at the way classical music saved him.

How much can a 38 year old say that is worthy of a memoir? In this case, a lot. Rhodes’ book is one of suffering, of healing (somewhat – this book is realistic), of music, and in many ways advice, all compiled into chapters that begin with a look at the mental health of a particular composer and a suggestion for a musical interlude.

Rhodes is modest, very humble, and what makes the book so successful is that whilst he is privileged and can name drop like the best (he went to school with Benedict Cumberbatch, for example) there is a very true feeling throughout that he believes it. This is not to say that it’s good to read about someone who had everything and is suffering – do not take my meaning the wrong way – it is to say that Rhodes’ place in the world means he’s truly in the middle, having had a lot but being right on a level with your average Joe. And he has had advantages, that’s true, but his has not been a simple journey of boom, healed, and then success.

And he writes with a particular honesty. There is the frankness in what Rhodes says; he speaks openly and harshly without going into too much detail for his own piece of mind. His prose is casual and welcoming, simple yet literary. He swears as he talks, casually, often, but sometimes because it is an effective way to explain a feeling.

Rhodes gives advice on some subjects, for example his advice on relationships (which I’ll point out is short in case it sounds like this is a self-help book – it’s not) that he has learned from the way he sees and deals with his own. He offers a lot of his opinion on how the classical music industry should change (this part is a little preachy but no less worthy). What he doesn’t advise on, however, is self-harm, drug use, suicide. Rhodes, though still falling back occasionally, has made his peace with many of the things he’s done in his life but says that people need to be careful with their support. In fact what he says is that we need to stop judging and worrying about and medicating those who self-harm and think of suicide. He shows how what others saw as support hindered him from healing. As far as the book’s importance in a general sense, this information is perhaps the most compelling reason for reading it.

Rhodes writes as much for those who haven’t had his experience as for those who have. He’s showing hope whilst remaining realistic, he shows that there are amazing ways out whilst showing that some are just average. And all through it is his self-effacing view of himself that wins you over because you can see how much good he is doing and you hope that he sees it himself.

I said above that Rhodes is preachy on the subject of music. His opinions themselves aren’t but do seem so when he speaks about music being the last art to have a strict classic genre and forgets books, and one hopes he knows of a previous attempt (successful in many cases) to bring children to classical music – The Magical Music Box magazine of the 90s. Rhodes makes a strong case that is absolutely fair – one hopes he succeeds in bridging the divide between the general populous and the elitism in the genre. Just one nitpick: he rules out contemporary classical music, stating that by all means a musician should play a new piece of music but that it won’t ever rival the old masters. The issue is that in making people, young people who don’t fit the stereotype of hoity toity classical music rah rahs, interested in it, is going to result in some of those people being inspired to create some themselves. To restrict such growth would be to come full circle and limit classical music to the old posh listeners.

Instrumental is important; it should to be read, it needs to be discussed. It needs to be read all the more so because of the ridiculous law suit raised to attempt to stop it being published which led to Rhodes being unable to talk about his abuse, just as he was unable to as a child. Writing it might just be the most important thing the pianist has ever done.

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October 23, 2015, 11:50 am

Lovely review Charlie. I’m a big fan of James. The whole hoohaa over Instrumental being published was ridiculous.


October 24, 2015, 5:35 pm

Great review Charlie. I’ve not heard of James Rhodes or this book. You make it sound like an important and powerful read though. I will have to look out for it.



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