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Piano lessons: key players in a life of music

Features - Classical Music | Stage

Piano lessons: key players in a life of music

by Melissa Lesnie on July 14, 2011 (July 14, 2011) filed under Classical Music | Stage | Comment Now
Do great pianists remember their first lessons? Anna Goldsworthy, Stephen Hough and others share their experiences.

When Australian concert pianist Anna Goldsworthy published a memoir about her journey from childhood lessons to an international performing career, she had no idea it would be so warmly and enthusiastically received, capturing the imaginations of pianophiles, amateur players and non-musicians alike. Since its publication in 2009 the book has enjoyed many lives: a companion recital disc, concert tours, talk of a film and now, for the Queensland Music Festival, a stage adaptation starring Anna as herself.

A central figure in both the memoir and its theatrical incarnation is Anna's early mentor, Russian pianist Eleonora Sivan. People tend to remember - often vividly - their first piano teachers as youngsters, whether or not they persevere with the instrument into adulthood. The pages that follow include Anna's discussion of the stage adaptation of her story, recollections of her teacher, and musings from critically acclaimed pianists in Australia and abroad who have written to Limelight about their first life-changing lessons.

Interview: Anna Goldsworthy

How did the stage adaptation of Piano Lessons come about?

I was contacted by Deborah Conway from the Queensland Music Festival about eighteen months ago, shortly after the book came out. She said she’d read it with her children, who had been studying piano, and that the whole family really enjoyed it. She was wondering whether I would consider some sort of stage adaptation, which I thought was a lovely idea because I had performed solo recitals based around the book and interspersed with readings, but this took it to another level in that it really aimed not just to contextualise the pieces but to tell the story.

This is quite a different performance for you.

That’s the aspect that’s been the steepest learning curve and the most daunting part of this project. One of the things that makes it less challenging than it might have been is that I’m acting as myself, so if anyone’s qualified to play that role I suppose it’s me! I’ve been working with the director and dramaturg Michael Futcher and he’s wonderful, but there have been slightly surreal scenarios where he’s said, “No, I don’t think Anna would say it like that, I think it would be more convincing if she did it another way.” It was at first a strange sort of therapy, acting my own memoir, but the other thing I felt is a bit intimidated – a little how I felt in my first piano performance as a nine-year-old. It’s kind of funny to be acting that event while being in a similar but equally challenging position.

But you’re distanced from it because you’re acting a character?

It has become stylized, I guess, but it was stylized anyway by virtue of turning memories into a memoir. Just by shaping the abstract memories into text there is a certain amount of distortion of thought, so it’s further step along that process. 

Working with Michael, was it difficult to discuss such personal matters?

Well, I was the one who did the script adaptation, and Michael has been like a midwife for the project in helping me shape it. He could be very objective because he has more distance, and this was especially useful for deciding which sections I could leave out of the book. One of the most difficult things was condensing it so much and still hoping that it told a story.

Are there similarities between working with the Seraphim trio and working with an actor and director?

I believe that in any collaborative situation, one hopes that the resulting product will be greater than the sum of its parts. When working with other people there are elements of trust and surrendering control. In this situation, the actress Caroline Kennison [playing Anna’s piano teacher] so fantastic that I have been able to draw a lot of energy from her, and this sense of feeding off the creative energy of your colleagues is something which happens in a chamber music ensemble as well.

How close do you think Caroline comes to embodying your memories of your piano teacher Eleonora Sivan, who was such a strong influence on you?

Caroline is very moving, real and authentic – as an actress she sweeps me into her world. I have to remember that she has never met Eleonora and is physically different to her, so she is not trying for an impersonation. Rather, she is creating a character based off the text, and I think she does this tremendously well.  She certainly still captures a spirit of Eleonora on the stage.

Since there is an element of musical performance, was it always a given that you would play yourself rather than having an actor portray you?

It was part of the original brief. The project is based around the music; it is a hybrid of a music concert performance and a theatrical play.  It would be very hard to find somebody who could act my personality and also play the virtuosic piano repertoire, so it was quite natural that I would be the one to deliver it.

Are you depicting your younger self as well?

I’m narrating the adaptation, as I narrate the book, from an adult perspective.  I’m storytelling more than acting, but occasionally I’m drawn into a scene in which I play my child self, whereas Mrs Sivan fully inhabits that past world.

There must be an interesting layering effect of the past and present intermingling: you’re re-living the experience in your mind as you act out a scripted version of the events.

You’re right; it’s quite an emotional journey!

Can you tell us about some of the musical excerpts you have chosen?

The book is shaped in chapters according to composers that we worked on, which gave me a structural handle and a way of organising the ideas. This was translated to the stage adaptation, and as such it unfolds thematically according to composers that are significant to me, especially during periods of my educational development.

The performance begins with me entering the stage and performing some Chopin, and from there the whole world unfolds, ending with a performance of the same work. It’s almost like a behind-the-scenes story as to how I came to be onstage performing Chopin.

The first place I go in the retelling is to my earliest lessons, which began with Bach.  For any musician learning the Western tradition, Bach may provide the starting point and is usually significant. Another pinnacle of teaching is Chopin. He had to be there, both because he is an important composer to me and because my study of his music marked my coming of age as a pianist. Liszt is also important – I performed some Liszt at my first public recital, and so I thought he needed to be there as a narrative element to portray that part of my history.

One of the most unique and special things about Eleonora which comes across in the book is her colourful and eccentric way of expressing herself and imparting these pearls of wisdom. Did all her sayings stick in your mind, and how difficult were they to recreate in scripted dialogue?

The process of teaching involves so much repetition that some of the lessons she was imparting to me at nine were the same as those at 17, and would probably be the same today if I were to call her on the phone.

Additionally, when she almost died six or seven years ago, it came as such a shock that I have been impelled to record some of our conversations since then. When I was writing the book, I often went back and listened to those conversations, and that was really important in recreating that voice, those stories, anecdotes and beautiful poetic analogies. 

What do you think she would make of the play?

I imagine it will be quite confronting for her, as it would for anybody seeing themselves being depicted on stage.  I asked Caroline and Michael for a night they believe would be best for her to come, and Caroline suggested that the final night would be best so as not to inhibit Caroline’s interpretation after meeting the character in the flesh. So, she’s flying up for the final night, and we’ll mount a little reception for her afterwards. I hope she enjoys it, accepts it and sees it as a tribute and a way of honouring her, as that is what it is intended to be.

What would you say is the greatest lesson that you learnt from her?  Could you possibly sum up that musical philosophy that she left with you?

There are a handful of life-changing lessons that she left with me.  One of them is love and passion: she loved these composers, her students and life itself so much. Generosity is another theme, both as a teacher giving to the students and as a performer giving to the audience.

You’ve said that there is a lot of failure depicted in the book because the lessons learnt from these experiences are strong.  What sort of lessons do you hope that aspiring pianists will get out of the play?

I hope the first lesson will be that performance is a celebration of music, and that by performing you are an advocate of classical music in this day and age. Classical music is certainly marginalised, and it is nowhere near as central to our culture as I believe that it deserves to be. So, the first thing I hope that the play imparts is an illumination into the wonder of this artform.  Beyond that, I hope that I can convey sense of the persistence, love and discipline that is required, because it is really hard work to become a pianist. But, I feel that it is ultimately rewarded.

Did you expect your story to have this kind of reach and longevity across various artforms?

I hadn’t expected that at all, it has been really delightful!  I didn’t have any expectations, I just wanted to write it, so it has been extremely gratifying to release it and see that so many people have embraced it and that it has taken on these other lives.

How easily do you think that people who don’t often attend classical music concerts might relate to the story as told on stage?

I really hope that they can relate easily and fully.  One of the things that has delighted me about the reception of the book is that I have had people with no musical background say that it has enlightened them about classical music, and that they have related to aspects of the play that are extra-musical, like coming of age and having a passion. Spreading the word about the piano and about music has certainly been an important intention in writing this book, and I hope that some people who are not regular concertgoers will stumble into the play and perhaps ignite some interest in classical piano.

Your father Peter Goldsworthy, author of the novel Maestro, often combines writing and music. Did he set an example for you, a road to follow? 

In the first instance, he set an example by being an artist. So, when I turned to art it was not a strange and unheard of thing in our family.

Do the two artforms stem from the same creative impulse for you?

I feel that music and story have a very strong bond, which I’m realising from reading bedtime stories and singing nursery rhymes to my son before bed.  I feel that he reacts very strongly to the narrative and musical fusion. But Juggling writing and music can be difficult; I find it hard to practise in the morning and then spend the whole afternoon writing a book.

Will you teach your son to play the piano?

I hope so, but only up to a certain point, as I believe there is a time when a child is better off learning from somebody else. It is such a big part of my life, so it is important to me that he has access to the world of music, but I wouldn’t force him into becoming a concert pianist.

Piano Lessons runs at the Queensland Music Festival July 26 - 30. View event details here.