Why wrong notes matter

Rebecca Franks speaks up for playing badly…

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Mitsuko Uchida‘Playing badly at home is so much fun.’ So says Mitsuko Uchida (right), one of the world’s leading pianists. I agree. Of course, it’s all relative. I can only dream of playing as well as Uchida can play badly. But even though I’m never going to come within three octaves of doing that, sitting down at the piano and attempting to get my fingers round the intricacies of Bach and Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy is a lot of fun. Similarly, having not touched my viola for a good few years, I’ve recently joined a string quartet. We might be meddling with the music of Mozart and making Haydn hideous, but it’s making us smile.

Uchida’s comments, made at this year’s Royal Philharmonic Society Awards ceremony, drew a laugh from the audience. Mostly, I imagine, because it’s hard to envisage this boldly imaginative, poetic, and intensely curious pianist could ever play anything badly. But maybe, too, there was a chuckle of recognition. Performers, amateur and professional, aspire to achieve some sort of musical perfection. I’m not knocking the value of persistence, dedication, inspiration and talent. But Uchida’s comments made us remember that, yes, it’s true, taking part does count. There’s nothing quite like exploring a piece of music from the inside out, tackling its fiddly corners, getting to know its character, and trying to bring to life something akin to what the composer might have imagined. Perhaps that’s part of the power of great art: there’s something intrinsically worthwhile about it. As a teacher of mine used to say, misquoting GK Chesterton, ‘If a thing’s worth doing well, it’s worth doing badly’.