I learned piano as a child and gave it up at fourteen, a decision I will regret for the rest of my days. My kids now learn music, all four of them. I’m quite, how should I put it, uncompromising, some say obsessed, about their music. Perhaps it’s because of my unfulfilled dreams, but I don’t think so. Nor do I think it’s because of the benefits to their brains or their academic learning.
It’s something to do with how much music means to me: a lot. I don’t fully understand why. Music moves me. It always has. Sometimes my eyes start to fill as soon as a piece starts because I’m reminded of the beauty that is to come. I only have to hear the first few bars of Elgar’s Nimrod to be in tears. Same with Dvorak’s New World Symphony.
Music touches a place deep inside me, not just in my head, but viscerally, in my belly. It moves me perhaps even more than words do. I think I write because I cannot compose.
Over the years I’ve used various methods to encourage my children with their music. I’ve told them that one day they will thank me. I’ve dangled carrots gently before them: ‘You can play on the computer after your practice is done’. I have resorted to out-and-out bribery: ‘I will buy the Wisden Cricket Almanac if you do all your practice this week.’ If that has failed,
occasionally often I have yelled.
It’s been worth it. They have all now reached the point where they can play well enough for it to sound good. More importantly, they enjoy it. The music itself is now the reward. They know that if they practise, they can make good music.
So a memoir entitled Piano Lessons leapt off the shelves at someone like me. The blurb says it ‘takes the reader on a journey into the heart and meaning of music’. How could I resist that?
Anna Goldsworthy’s list of credentials is as long as your arm, as are her awards and positions. She is Research Fellow at the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide, Artistic Director of the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival, and founding member of the Seraphim Trio (Read more about Anna). Piano Lessons itself has won many awards and is to be made into a movie.
The book is Anna’s memoir of her childhood piano lessons with her teacher, Mrs Eleonora Sivan. Anna is nine-years-old at the start of the book and Mrs Sivan had recently emigrated from Russia to Adelaide, South Australia. From the first lesson, Anna knows this teacher is special. She encourages Anna to see that music lives, that it has personality, and that to play it, she needs to take it inside of her and make it part of her.
‘Your hand and your instrument are one, not two, and your music inside of you.’
Each chapter of the book is named after the composer whose piece is brought to life in that chapter. The memoir concentrates on Anna’s school years, and takes the reader through the pressures of practice, competitions, auditions, recitals, and exams. Alongside the usual teenage pressures, the reader sees the self-imposed discipline and the hours and hours of practice that this young girl puts in as she strives for music perfection. She shares both her successes and her failures.
My copy of the book is completely defaced – I fell in love with so many of Mrs Sevin’s words of wisdom. There are far too many to quote here, but one of my favourites is, ‘Never beautify Mozart. He is beautiful enough already. He does not need your make-up.’ I also loved Mrs Sevin’s comments on each composer — she knows so much about their lives. On Chopin, for instance, ‘Piano is his best friend. More. He tells piano all his secrets,’ and, ‘George Sand not the true love of Chopin’s life. This is. This instrument.’
This story is a tribute to Mrs Sevin, and illustrates how much a great teacher brings to the musical journey of their student. Oh that all music teachers had her knowledge and love of music! But the story is Anna’s. You cannot read it without a growing admiration for Anna herself. For the quiet, gawky girl who hopes to become a concert pianist, who battles her introverted self and bares her soul for music. And in this book.
Anna now tours, presenting recitals during which she reads from her memoir and plays the music. My son and I were lucky enough to attend one of her gigs a few weeks’ ago in Perth. It was an intimate and thoughtful evening of beautiful words and music. She then signed the book for my son, ‘from one pianist to another’. He was thrilled!
Of course, every piano teacher should read this book. But it’s not just for teachers of piano — any music teacher will appreciate it. Indeed anyone learning a musical instrument or who has children learning music would gain much from reading it. After reading, you’ll be in love with this teacher and in search of your own Eleonora Sevin. Unless, like me, you’ve already found her.
Piano Lessons by Anna Goldsworthy, Black Inc Publishing, 2011 $22.95. ABC Classsics have released a CD to accompany the memoir. Anna has also written a second book, Welcome to your new life!, about her early experiences of parenthood.