Ever since Anna Goldsworthy’s memoir, Piano lessons, was published, I’ve hankered to read it, but somehow never got around to acquiring a copy. So, when I was casting around for our next road trip audiobook and this one popped up serendipitously in Borrowbox, I grabbed the opportunity.
Now, I have to admit that although I did play drums and fife, briefly, in a primary school band, I have never had formal music lessons. Ballet was my thing as a child. However, Mr Gums learnt piano to Grade 7, and I sat in on our kids’ music lessons, especially their piano ones, for years. I loved it, because I learnt so much about music (and music teachers) as a result. I was consequently primed for this book about the author’s piano lessons and her relationship with her Russian-born piano teacher, Mrs Sivan. Being on the Liszt List, that is, someone whose student-teacher lineage reaches back to Liszt, Mrs Sivan initially comes across as formidable, but very soon her warmth and generosity come to the fore.
Essentially, this memoir is a coming-of-age story. It covers Goldsworthy’s life – specifically her piano-playing life – from the age of nine until her mid-late twenties. It is not, however, the traditional coming-of-age story, but her coming-of-age as a musician and, along the way, as a wiser more rounded person. We see Anna coping with the humiliation of failure, when she gets a C in an important piano exam having been used to always getting As. We see the point at which she realises that, if she is to achieve her concert pianist dream, practising for barely two hours a day is not going to cut it. We see the naiveté of a young woman who, not prepared for a journalist’s questions, manages to hurt the people closest to her, learning, in the process, the importance of “humility and gratitude”. And, we see the brilliant pianist and school dux learning that a “perfect score” is “not proof against disaster”.
But, we also hear the wisdom of her piano teacher who doesn’t just teach her the techniques of playing piano, but also the meaning of music, the value and role of the arts and, more, a deeply humane philosophy of life, one that recognises, for example, the value of competition for learning but not for measuring one’s achievement or worth. Indeed, she tells Anna that she is “not teaching piano playing”, she is “teaching philosophy”. It is some years, of course, before Anna stops seeing piano playing as “obstacle courses for fingers” but as something you feel and express.
Goldsworthy describes this piano teacher, Mrs Sivan, as “less a character than a force”, and she conveys this sense largely through reproducing her teacher’s rapid-fire broken English. This might have been worked well in text, but in the audiobook – which was read by Goldsworthy herself – it was frequently difficult to listen to and was sometimes so fast that we missed words. Unfortunately, I don’t have the text to give you an example, but I found one tiny quote on GoodReads. Here is Mrs Sivan telling student Anna about Chopin:
I tell you a secret about Chopin, piano is his best friend. More. He tells piano all his secrets.
Mrs Sivan preceded this by saying that George Sand was not Chopin’s great love, the piano was! One of the real pleasures of this book is the insight provided into several musicians, particularly Bach, Mozart and Chopin, but also Beethoven, Shostakovich and others. Mrs Sivan knows them and their music so well, and impresses upon Anna that musicians must understand the composer and their lives to understand their music. Mozart, for example, “was born with happy of everything”. I found her adamance about this interesting, because, in the literary arts, there are those who argue that the author’s life is irrelevant and should not be considered at all. I think there’s a place for it.
Piano lessons is not a long book – just 240 pages or so – but the writing and the structuring of the story are so tight that Goldsworthy conveys this coming-of-age to some depth despite the book’s brevity. She does this by never labouring her points, by knowing which stories to tell and how much to tell of them, and by imbuing it all with a light touch. Sometimes you think you are left hanging – “did she win that audition?” – but the answer always comes directly or indirectly a little later.
There is more to this book about music and musicians, about fostering talent, about forging a meaningful life as a musician, and about teaching being “the highest calling”, but not having it on hand, I’ll close here by sharing Mrs Sivan’s words about the arts. She told Goldsworthy that the arts must be “aesthetically and ethically grounded” and that they embody “unlimited flying of imagination”. I like both of these ideas – particularly that about the arts needing to be both aesthetic and ethical. In one sense, I don’t like to think that the arts “should” be anything, but I also believe that being ethical about what we do – whatever that is – is important. I think I would have liked Mrs Sivan.
Lisa also (ANZLitLovers) loved this book.
Piano lessons (Audio)
(Read by Anna Goldsworthy)
Bolinda Audio, 2015 (Orig. pub. 2009)
2:23 e-audiobook (Unabridged)