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James Rhodes

James Rhodes interview: ‘Classical music is filled with assholes’

In his own words, five things you didn't know about the maverick pianist

By Gabriel Tate
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Playing the piano offered classical pianist James Rhodes a route through addiction and mental health issues after an abusive childhood. Now, his new campaigning Channel 4 show ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ is fighting to keep music education in schools. If he’s able to translate his relentless energy and evangelical belief in the power of music to this most worthy of causes, the government won’t stand a chance.

‘Childhood has to be a time of wonder and awe, and creativity is the quickest route to that,’ he says. ‘There has to be some sort of counterpoint to Maths, English and RE. Otherwise, what’s the fucking point?’​

1. Music really did save his life.
‘Despite what my head says about the world being a hostile, untrustworthy, vile, steaming pile of shit, I Iisten to a piece of Bach and it tunnels into me and touches something completely sacred. If you’re in a psych ward, have broken up with the love of your life or been diagnosed with something monstrous, it won’t make everything better, but it may provide a brief window of respite. 
It kept me alive for years.’

2. He has the solution to classical music’s image problem.
‘Classical music is filled with assholes. It’s been appropriated for a certain group of people and shrouded in its own genius bullshit. It’s so frustrating: the presentation, the programming, the price of tickets, the time they put concerts on. So you end up with “Classic FM 100 Best Chillout Classics Ever Vol 7”. Alfie Boe singing “Phantom of the Opera”? I’d rather rim a tramp than listen to that stuff. So, we the musicians should play different venues, talk to the audience from the stage, give the pieces a storyline. I don’t give a fuck if you don’t like it, but at least listen to it before you decide. The one thing that should never be changed is the music itself. Anything else is up for grabs.’

3. He could teach his celebrity chums a thing or two.
‘Benedict [Cumberbatch] comes and supports my concerts. He’s got quite moved at some of them, but then so has my mum, so what does that say about me? He’s had a few piano lessons; if he had time to practise he’d be brilliant. Stephen Fry plays the piano too, although not particularly well. It’s the one thing I’m better at than him, so fuck him!’

4. As his new show proves, he’s a man on a mission.
‘Music education has become a luxury when it should be a basic human right. How many kids don’t know they have this inherent talent? I started off with a school in Basildon, got instruments and specialist tutors in for free and started an orchestra. Then I thought about an instrument amnesty, and taking it nationwide: give a £500 trumpet to a kid who hasn’t been given much of anything, and it’s met with disbelief, then suspicion, then delight. We criminally underestimate kids, but they look after them, practise, show up on time to rehearsals and grow about three feet taller when they perform.’

5. And he needs your help.
‘Find any instrument – anything that isn’t electronic or a piano – fill out the form online, take it to your nearest Oxfam and we’ll do the rest. I guarantee it’ll get into the hands of some kid, and it might change their life forever.’

‘Don’t Stop the Music’ begins on Tue Sep 9 at 9pm on C4. Visit www.dontstopthemusic.co.uk to find out more and sign up.

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