Hanns-Josef Ortheil

How I Learnt to Play the Piano

(German title: Wie ich Klavierspielen lernte)
ca. 200 pages
Hanns-Josef Ortheil
Foto: Hanns-Josef Ortheil
© Isolde Ohlbaum

Hanns-Josef Ortheil, born in 1951, is a writer, pianist, and Professor for Creative Writing and Cultural Journalism at the University of Hildesheim. His literary work has received numerous awards, including the Thomas-Mann Prize of the city of Lübeck in 2002.

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An autobiographical story that is not only for piano and music-lovers


The first time he has a piano lesson, Hanns-Josef Ortheil is four years old. Guided by his mother, he makes rapid progress and is placed in the care of a Russian pianist. Soon he makes the decision to become a concert pianist and to shine on the important stages of the world. For the young piano student this means years of practice, often many hours a day. Shortly after graduating from grammar school, the twenty-year-old receives a scholarship to study in Rome, where he experiences a completely unexpected breakdown. His big dream is shattered...

In How I Learnt to Play Piano Hanns-Josef Ortheil recounts the often bizarre details of a pianist’s life from where he stands today, from his first lessons to his favourite composers, early preludes, exalted teachers, and the great titans on the stages of Salzburg and elsewhere. In an amusing and thrilling way he leads the reader up a steep ladder into the heaven of pianists, where since the time of Vladimir Horowitz massive psychoses as well as legendary triumphs have been the order of the day.

Not only for piano and music enthusiasts this is a book that, thanks to a wealth of knowledge and details, tells the tale of the hidden, daemonic side of manic practicing and playing as well as the history of the world of a virtuoso.


»As a child, [Hanns-Josef Ortheil] imagined that the keys kept moving [underneath the piano lid]. Now he knows that everything that resonates comes from within himself, just like this novel as a great echo of a life filled with music.« Jörg Magenau, Süddeutsche Zeitung

»Relaxed and amusingly told – not only for fans of classical music.« stern

»[...] a search for the traces of Ortheil’s desire as a child and young boy to become a pianist. [...] And it is also the story of a special relationship between a mother and her son through the medium of music.« Mascha Drost, Deutschlandfunk Kultur

»A gripping book.« Susanne Benda, Stuttgarter Zeitung

»Hanns-Josef Ortheil’s new novel is an entertaining declaration of love to the piano.« Ulf Heise, Freie Presse

»A very personal book – and a highly musical one.« Jürgen Kanold, Südwest Presse Ulm

»This bildungsroman, as gripping as it is gloomy, is an encouraging book.« Ronald Schneider, RP Online

»A fascinating form of autobiographical writing. Anecdotal moments and whimsical accents ensure enlivenment and an appropriate distance and make these brilliantly written recollections a both pensive as well as entertaining read.« Badische Neueste Nachrichten

»Hanns-Josef Ortheil is a sensitive narrator who looks at himself with distance and self-irony and who elegantly interweaves the present and the past.« Welt der Frauen