Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication, and Music

Rhodes, James

Primary Category: Literature / Literature

Genre: Memoir

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy
  • Date of entry: May-11-2017


James Rhodes is a British classical concert pianist who is known for his iconoclastic, pop-inspired performing style.  He is also an outspoken survivor of childhood sexual abuse who is equally frank about his struggles with severe mental illness. Rhodes’s memoir Instrumental is a tribute to the healing power of music.  Indeed, music quite literally saves the author’s life; it is only when a friend smuggles an iPod loaded with Bach into his psych ward that Rhodes regains the will to live.   

Rhodes does not mince words.  We learn that he was violently raped by a gym teacher on a regular basis for five years from the age of five. Left with severe internal injuries that produce wracking pain, he requires multiple surgeries.  He soon also develops dissociative symptoms, drug and alcohol addiction, self-injurious behaviors, and chronic suicidal ideation. Barely able to function, he endures many tumultuous years during which he abandons the piano.  The author’s subsequent journey from physical and emotional fragmentation to wholeness through music provides the substance of his book.

The preface to Instrumental is designated “Prelude,” and the ensuing twenty chapters, labeled “tracks,” all correspond to musical works.  (All twenty tracks may be listened to, for free, on Spotify.) In addition, as if to assure the reader he is in good company, Rhodes offers psychological profiles of famous composers.  We learn, for example, that Bruckner suffered from a morbid obsession with numbers, and that Schumann, after throwing himself in the Rhine, died in an asylum.  


From the very first sentence in which the author tells us that “classical music makes me hard” (p. xi) we know we will be on a roller coaster.  Rhodes’s hysterical rants may prove exasperating to some; the fact that the book is obsessively littered with profanities will offend others.  Readers with mental illnesses should be forewarned that the graphic descriptions of cutting might prove to be a disturbing trigger. Nothing is sacred here. While it might be tempting to dismiss James Rhodes as being in the lunatic fringe, be aware that he counts Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch among his friends.  Likewise, his albums, which number among them the title “Razor Blades, Little Pills, Big Pianos,” have topped the iTunes classical charts.  

Whatever its flaws, Instrumental  is a raw, nakedly honest book that took guts to write. James Rhodes’s experience reinforces the lessons learned from Britain’s Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal.  The author is a passionate advocate for survivors of abuse and the mentally ill. Instrumental is also a thought-provoking, personal consideration of the interface between psychiatry and music.   


The link to the Spotify excerpts is  

The author’s website includes his concert schedule and links for purchasing his albums. 



Place Published

New York



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