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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

James Rhodes


James Rhodes

'...Yeah, music's no cure, it’s no magic wand - but it no doubt improves things for everyone -  not just those with mental illness'.


James Rhodes (b. 1975) is a British pianist. His no-frills, vibrant and contemporary approach to classical music has seen him described as a ‘rock star on a Steinway’ and a ‘Jamie Oliver of the grand piano’ and has led to considerable commercial success, including a new six-album deal with Warner Brothers records.


James started playing piano aged seven and at 18 he was offered a scholarship at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. However, he elected instead to study psychology at University College London, a decision he has admitted was due to pressure from his father. He stopped playing music completely between 18 and 28, when he worked as a sales director for a London financial publisher. In 2004, he quit his job after rediscovering his passion for music, a decision he has attributed in part to the influence of his young son. His career ignited following a tutorage by the renowned piano teacher Edoardo Strabbioli in Verona Italy.

While at school, James was the victim of sexual abuse, which led to many difficulties in his adolescent and early adult years, including drug misuse problems. His mental health difficulties extended into his adult life and in 2006 he was admitted under section to a London psychiatric hospital with severe depressive symptoms. He has spoken openly about all of these problems in public fora in the past several years.

In July 2013, he presented ‘Notes from the Inside with James Rhodes’ on Channel 4. In the programme, he visits a psychiatric hospital and meets four patients with mental illness. He selects a piece of music to play for each of them to match their personality and individual circumstances. The documentary provides an insightful and emotive account of the impact of music on James’ own life and its potential for improving the life of others and was extremely well received by the public and welcomed by service user groups and those tackling stigma. For ‘Minds in Music’, he spoke to me about the programme and matters of mind and music.

'...Whilst many areas of mental illness are way beyond my remit and understanding, stigma is not and I fully intend to do whatever I can to lessen it.'

JT: You said in a recent piece you wrote for The Guardian that you hate the term ‘classical music’. What is it about the genre’s reputation that you feel puts so many people off? It seems as though you intend to save it- how?!

 JR: Classical music doesn’t need saving by anyone, let alone me. I simply detest the ‘gatekeeper’ mentality that pervades it. The idea that, like amazing architecture, it’s all very lovely but belongs to other people is utter rubbish. The presentation, and consequently the music itself, can be seen all too often as sacred and untouchable, and this has to change.


Your Channel 4 series ‘Notes from Inside’ provides a unique and moving insight into how music can help improve the lives of people with mental illness. It also provides a formidable challenge to stigma. Do you intend to pursue this type of work further? Do you know other musicians who you think would join you on such an endeavour?


I like the word improve. Yeah, it’s no cure, it’s no magic wand, but it no doubt improves things for everyone, not just those with mental illness. Whilst many areas of mental illness are way beyond my remit and understanding, stigma is not and I fully intend to do whatever I can to lessen it.  We attack what we fear, and with mental illness there is nothing to fear – compassion and understanding is the only way forward.  It is the symptoms of mental illness, rather than the illness itself, that leads to misunderstanding, confusion and fear.


You have not been afraid to speak very frankly about your own mental health difficulties. To do this at all takes a lot of courage, all the more so in public arena. What advice would you have to young people with mental health problems about opening up about them?


Thank you. I don’t think I’d use the word courage though. I’ve always believed that if I’m lucky enough to have some kind of forum then it is essential, both to my recovery and to the concept of reducing stigma, to be open about these things. There’s no doubt though, that initially it requires huge courage to open up. Much more to those we love than to the press. The only advice I can offer, based on my experience, is to be very careful about whom you choose to speak to and don’t rush it. There are plenty of quite brilliant organisations (Samaritans, Mind, Survivors UK etc) that offer invaluable, non-judgemental support.  Don’t be ashamed of it. Don’t fight it. Don’t deny it. Relish it, in fact. After all, how much great literature, music, art and creativity would be absent from the world if mental illness did not exist? It is not a bad thing when correctly managed.


You have also spoken about how dedicating yourself to your music helped you overcome your difficulties. Yet as a professional musician, music must at times be a source of stress to you as well. How do you handle this paradox?


Ha! Yes it’s a double-edged sword sometimes. The concept of hours and hours alone practising punctuated by a couple of hours of intense pressure and exposure is kind of scary and can at times threaten to overwhelm. But honestly I don’t buy for a minute the idea of ‘musician as tortured genius shrouded in his own demons’. Any job where you want to excel and be great at brings with it immense pressure. I’m certain that I’d feel as stressed and overwhelmed working in Starbucks as I do playing to a sold out audience of 2000 people.


In ‘Notes from Inside’, you mention hearing Bach’s Marcello Adagio as a turning point for you. What is it about this piece and Bach’s music in general that allowed you to find such solace and inspiration?


Bach works on so many levels – he’s mathematically compact, angular, perfectly structured and clearly defined. Everything fits perfectly. And yet within that is one of the most Romantic and visceral composers who ever lived.  I love the idea of somehow being able to plumb the depths of our emotional world within a safe and logical framework. I know how pretentious that sounds, but it is remarkable to me that a guy who lost 10 of his 20 kids in infancy or childbirth, was orphaned by the age of 10, lost his wife, most of his siblings and endured a childhood that was unimaginable in its horrors can live well, create thousands of pieces of music that are immortal, universal and infinite whilst keeping his job and holding his shit together. That has to give all of us a bit of hope, doesn’t it?





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Minds in Music

Minds in Music

  John Tully  


Dr John Tully is a forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London. He is also a musician and is interested in the role of the arts in mental health.