Rough Ideas by the British American pianist Stephen Hough is a new collection of easily readable essays on a wide range of topics from practice, performance, and repertoire, to Catholicism and spirituality. This informative and provocative tome provides a fascinating look into the mind of one of today's finest classical pianists.

A self-professed gay Catholic, Hough flits from the surface of one idea, to the depths of another, deftly turning from the Beatles to Sibelius, or from Herman Hesse to the demise of Bechstein. As one might expect from the title of his book, many of his essays are inconclusive and unresolved. The reader is often left to ponder a salient question to which the author does not provide conclusive answers: this aspect of Hough's writing is sometimes frustrating, other times delicious.

Hough revels in recounting hilarious tales of mischief, like the time he was thrown out of Carnegie Hall for giggling during a concert (he giggles a lot!), or the time he nearly missed a dress rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic due to a faulty alarm clock. These are the stories we all love to tell and hear over a beer at the pub with our old conservatory friends.

A lengthy section on practicing serves as an inspiring wakeup call to get back in the practice room during this time of quarantine. Hough offers useful guidance for both amateurs and professionals on a variety of topics including fingering, pedaling, trilling, scales and arpeggios, metronome use, and managing your time and energy at the piano. It is a useful collection of tips for both students and teachers.

In encyclopedic fashion, Hough fluently discusses many of the great works for piano and orchestra by Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Dvorak, as well as a large chunk of solo repertoire from Chopin and Liszt, to Debussy, Ravel, and Poulenc. He makes a point of introducing the reader to lesser-known composers as well, taking extra time to explore the extensive repertoire of York Bowen, of whom I admit I had never heard, and whose music I have enjoyed getting to know while reading this book.

Hough's extensive pages of classical music anecdotes are delightful, informative, and are exactly what one would expect in picking up this book to say, pass some time with a cup of coffee. Such a reader might find himself surprised at the turn of tone towards the end of the book, where Mr. Hough takes the chance of entering into lengthy discussions of Catholicism (to which he converted from Protestantism in 1980), spirituality, assisted suicide, hospice care, and abortion. One could argue these final 100 or so pages stand out as disjunct from the previous 400, and I admit there is a feeling that Mr. Hough's thoughts on these
more difficult issues stand in contrast to the overarching lighthearted character of the book.

He could not possibly have imagined in writing this book, that it might be read in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hough's Rough Ideas, albeit unintentionally, calls attention to the sad uncertainty of our musical lives in the near future. In this light, hilarious anecdotes of page-turning mishaps, frustrating mid-concert cell phones, and terrifying memory slips come to the fore as elements that are sorely missing from our lives. Hough reminds us all of the joys and fears of being a musician, and yes, he made me a bit nostalgic for the days of garlic-breathed page turners, rude concert goers, and sweaty palms. Thanks to Mr. Hough for bringing all of these emotions front and center at a time when we miss them the most. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, paperback 424 pages, $20; other formats available) 

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