5 Engaging Non-Fiction Books for Pianists

Ahhh...September--a month of cooler temperatures, late summer produce, golden sunlight, and a hint of autumn in the air.  This traditional back-to-school month feels naturally "bookish" to me--a time to put aside my light summer reads and embrace more serious books. One of the (few) silver linings to pandemic living has been having the time to read a lot of books and in my circle of friends, we trade favorite book titles like other people trade stock tips. Even though I'm usually drawn to fiction, this year I've read piles of non-fiction books covering topics as far ranging as travel, politics, religion, biographies, and (of course) music.  

These non-fiction books were recommendations from friends and are now five of my favorite music reads.  Three are recent releases and two have been out for several years.  All are "keepers"--ones I'll go back to again, and ones I am happy to recommend to you.  And, as summer fades, what better time to curl up with (in my case) a friendly lap cat, a hot drink, and (of course) a good book?

Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More

By Stephen Hough

About the book: Curious to know what it’s really like to work as a concert pianist and perform on all of the best stages in the world?  This book by Stephen Hough, one of the world’s leading pianists, is for you.  Hough has been has been described by The Economist as one of “Twenty Living Polymaths”—an artist who, in addition to his piano playing, is gifted as a writer, composter, and painter.  In Rough Ideas, Hough writes informally and engagingly about music, the life of a musician, people he’s known, places he’s traveled to, books he’s read, paintings he’s seen.  He candidly shares his thoughts on controversial subjects such as assisted suicide and abortion, the possibility of the existence of God, problems with some biblical texts, and the challenges involved in being a gay Catholic.

Favorite Quote: “But maybe there is a path shared between great art and great living, which is what religion is ultimately about.  To lift us out of ourselves, to point beyond, to awaken a sense of the ‘other’…all of this can flow from music.  As nuclear power can keep a life-support machine working as well as destroy a city, so can music inspire us to great things as well as anesthetize us when we have become monsters.” 

The Lost Pianos of Siberia

By Sophy Roberts

About the book: Most westerners know Siberia as a place of exile and penal colonies.  This book tells the story of this harsh region through music and the pianos that were brought to the region. The Lost Pianos of Siberia is largely a story of music in this fascinating place, following Roberts on a three-year adventure as she tracks a number of different instruments to find one whose history is definitively Siberian. Her journey reveals a desolate land inhabited by wild tigers and deeply shaped by its dark history, yet one that is also profoundly beautiful―and peppered with pianos.

Favorite Quote: “Numerous instruments were left to rot in Siberia, either too big to move from apartments, or ignored in the basements of music schools long after the funding had run out…Yet there are also pianos that have managed to withstand the furtive cold forever trying to creep into their strings.  These instruments not only tell the story of Siberia’s colonization by the Russians, but also illustrate how people can endure the most astonishing calamities.  That belief in music’s comfort survives in muffled notes from broken hammers, in beautiful harmonies describing unspeakable things that words can’t touch.”


Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music

By Blair Tindall

About the book: This tell-all book should be required reading for anyone considering a career in classical music. In the tradition of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing on My Grave, Mozart in the Jungle delves into the lives of the musicians and conductors who inhabit the insular world of classical music. In a book that inspired the Amazon Original series oboist Blair Tindall recounts her decades-long professional career as a classical musician—from the recitals and Broadway orchestra performances to the secret life of musicians who survive hand to mouth in the backbiting New York classical music scene. An incisive, no-holds-barred account, Mozart in the Jungle is the first true, behind-the-scenes look at what goes on backstage and in the Broadway pit.

Favorite quote: “A young person who dreamily ‘wants to go to Juilliard’ or ‘be a concert pianist’ should research the reality of these statements.  Seek out a variety of professional musicians: soloists, teachers, and orchestral, theatrical, and freelance musicians.  Tag along for an afternoon or evening. See where they live.  Ask what their days are really like and how they pay their living expenses.  Ask if they like what they do and why.  Most important, ask yourself if you are willing to sacrifice hours to tedious practice and nights, weekends, and holidays to playing concerts at times friends and relatives are socializing and relaxing.” 

Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times

By Alan Walker

About the book: Best known for his 3 volume Franz Liszt biography, Alan Walker brings his scholarship and engaging writing to the life of Chopin. Based on ten years of research and a vast cache of primary sources located in archives in Warsaw, Paris, London, New York, and Washington, D.C., Alan Walker’s monumental Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times is the most comprehensive biography of the great Polish composer to appear in English in more than a century. Comprehensive and engaging, and written in highly readable prose, the biography wears its scholarship lightly: this is a book suited as much for the professional pianist as it is for the casual music lover.

Favorite quote: “One of the most heartfelt messages Chopin received after the concert was a brief note from his old admirer the Marquis de Custine, who spoke for many when he wrote, ‘You have transformed a public into a circle of friends,’ a sentence that could well serve as Chopin’s epitaph.”

The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations

By Zhu Xiao-Mei

About the book: Zhu Xiao-Mei was born to middle-class parents in post-war China, and her musical proficiency became clear at an early age. Taught to play the piano by her mother, she developed quickly into a prodigy, immersing herself in the work of classical masters like Bach and Brahms. But in 1966, when Xiao-Mei was seventeen, the Cultural Revolution began, and life as she knew it changed forever. One by one, her family members were scattered, sentenced to prison or labor camps. By 1969, the art schools had closed, and Xiao-Mei was on her way to a work camp in Mongolia, where she would spend the next five years. Yet through it all Xiao-Mei clung to her passion for music and her sense of humor. And when the Revolution ended, it was the piano that helped her to heal. 

Favorite Quote: “There is no single truth—everything depends on the way in which one wants to see reality.  That is life, and that is the Goldberg Variations.  Through it, I also now understand why polyphony, Bach’s in particular, affects me more deeply than any other type of music.  By means of its various voices, it alone is capable of simultaneously expressing multiple and contradictory emotions, without one necessarily taking precedence over another.”