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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.
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.
It was my grandfather who found her. He pronounced her name with an extravagant French accent that spoke of her mystery, her glamour.
She had recently arrived in Adelaide with her husband and teenage son and was teaching piano at a western-suburbs high school. My grandfather was a regional director of the Education Department, and he had chanced upon one of her lessons during a routine inspection.
‘He was true gentleman, of course, very charming,’ she told me later, ‘but with a natural authority.’ She furrowed her brow and pointed her finger: ‘You will teach my granddaughter.’
I was nine years old and learning piano from a local jazz muso. After our lessons, he liked to join my parents in the kitchen, roll strange-smelling cigarettes and talk about Stevie Wonder. My father had for many years resisted my grand- father’s natural authority, and saw no reason for this arrange- ment to change, until one afternoon the jazz muso rolled a cigarette and announced it was time for me to move on.
‘She got an A for First Grade, man! Where to from here?’
It was no longer only my grandfather’s idea: my father could safely take it up.
‘Mrs Sivan is from Russia,’ he told me that night at dinner. ‘She’s on the Liszt list.’
‘What’s the list list?’
‘The Liszt list. Liszt taught the teacher of her teacher’s teacher.’
‘Who’s Liszt?’ He gave me one of his looks. ‘A very famous composer.’ I liked the sound of that. If I learned piano from Mrs Sivan, then I too would be on the Liszt list. It sat well with the grand narrative I had in mind for my life.
A week later, my grandfather drove me to Mrs Sivan’s house for the audition; my mother sat beside him wearing her best lavender pant-suit, smelling of Chanel. As we drove down North East Road, he recommended I pay serious attention to directions.
‘We now approach Ascot Avenue, elsewhere known as Portrush Road. Here we undertake a right-hand turn.’
This was a journey that would be tracked into my body over the following years, as I made it once a week, then twice a week, and then sometimes every day. But for now, my grandfather might have been taking me on an intergalactic voyage from my suburban Adelaide childhood to somewhere very far away.
‘At this point, we arrive at our destination,’ he announced, as we pulled up outside a cream-brick bungalow. ‘The home of the distinguished Mrs Eleonora Siv-an, formerly of the Leningrad Conservatorium of Music.’
At the front door there were courtly nods and handshakes all round, and my grandfather and mother speaking too loudly. ‘And how are you enjoying your new house, Mrs Sivan?’ my grandfather asked. ‘Yes, we like enormous. Much more comfortable than Pennington Hostel.’
They all laughed, and I dared look up. How to describe her? In my mind she is less a character than a force. Music is coiled inside her under a pressure that demands expression, and from the moment she opened the door she did not stop talking. She must have been in her forties, but was not much taller than my nine-year-old self, and had the peachy, springy skin of an infant. I met her powerful gaze and blushed and dropped my eyes.
‘We are not teaching piano playing,’ she said. Her English was new, and I was not sure if I had heard correctly. ‘We are teaching philosophy and life and music digested. Music is yours. Instrument is you are. Come in, please come in.’
She ushered us into her living room and directed me to an ancient upright piano with yellowing keys.
‘Music is logically created fantasy,’ she continued. ‘When I give information, this information comes to student to digest. When digestion coming, the nutrition is his own – is not mine.’
I scanned the room, searching for something of the known world to which I could anchor myself. The piano was pushed against a wall painted a lurid, metallic pink. In the middle of this wall there was a calendar, and I pinned my hopes on this.
‘What is the result of a clever, clever heart, and a very kind and generous brain?’
I stared at my mother, willing her to answer, but she avoided my gaze.
‘It is clever hands!’ Mrs Sivan declared.
‘Indeed it is,’ said my grandfather. ‘Now, I imagine you would like to hear Anna play her Mozart sonata.’
‘Of course. Please, make yourself comfortable. Always think first of music, and not to impress us. And never start until you are ready. This is first arts of any music: learn to listen to silence, atmospheric silence. Only then can we understand future and perspective.’
‘Where should I begin?’ My voice was very small. ‘What?’ My father had urged me to begin with the slow movement, because I played it ‘very musically’. ‘Should I begin with the second movement?’
She looked shocked. ‘Always best to start story from beginning, yes? Of course must be first movement.’
At this stage, I viewed piano pieces as obstacle courses for fingers, in which the object was getting through to the end, largely unscathed. The first movement of the Mozart sonata was a hazardous place, but I dodged a few accidentals in the development section and made it to the double barline.
There was silence. I looked at my mother, who looked at my grandfather, who looked at Mrs Sivan.
‘Thank you,’ she said, finally. ‘You like chocolate, yes? Come with me, and I give wonderful chocolate.’
My mother nodded encouragingly, and I followed Mrs Sivan out to the kitchen, where she gave me a Baci chocolate, wrapped in silver foil, and then another, and then two more. ‘You are good girl, and now must enjoy your life.’ She called in her teenage son, Dmitri, to sit with me, and returned to the lounge room to speak to my mother and grandfather.
I looked around the room as my heart beat wildly in my chest. There were framed photographs of dogs on the walls, dressed in spectacles and hats.
‘Who took these photos?’ I asked Dmitri. He had dark hair and gentle eyes.
‘My uncle.’ He named the dogs, one by one. ‘Do you come from Russia?’ ‘Yes.’ I had no further small talk, so I munched through my hoard of chocolate in silence. Eventually, Mrs Sivan collected me. ‘I give you kiss,’ she said. ‘Nine-year-old girl who tries so hard. Of course you must be allowed to learn. But always remember, sounds themselves are emotional response and reflection of contents of your heart and mind. Music is not just playing right notes in right time, but digestion hugely important. Enormous job really, but so rewarding, and so makes it worth to live!’
There was a festive atmosphere in the car on the way home. ‘Fancy that!’ said my mother. ‘My clever baby.’ ‘My dear, you are to be commended on making such a fine impression,’ my grandfather declared. Later, Mrs Sivan explained that she had taken pity on me.
That any child who laboured through a Mozart sonata, so ill-equipped, deserved to be taught.
‘Her acceptance is not without conditions,’ my grandfather continued. ‘Mrs Sivan expects you to practise more. Two hours a day. But not all at once. Forty minutes before school, forty minutes in the afternoon and forty minutes in the evening.’
Two hours a day. It sounded catastrophic, but also thrilling.
The jazz muso had asked me to practise for five minutes every day.
Five minutes every single day? For the rest of my life until I died?
We cannot choose our parents and, more often than not, we cannot choose our teachers either, at least in the early, formative years. However if that choice had have been available to me I could not have selected a more nurturing, stimulating or inspiring teacher than Gordon Green. And yet, no ordinary teacher.
I rarely saw him clearly in the seven years I was his student as, more often than not, he was obscured by clouds of pipe smoke. Just as he was about to make a musical point he would reach for the matchbox, strike a match, hold it against his charred pipe, and draw in deeply. Not since the Mount of Transfiguration were wisdom and clouds so perfectly united. As the fire was singeing the tobacco his mind was weighing the issue at hand – how to pace, how to phrase, how to pedal. In my first six months of lessons (I was ten years old) we talked of pedaling more than anything else. Ears and feet – as important to a serious pianist as fingers.
It has been said that music is more about the silences than the notes, and this was true of Gordon’s teaching too. Before he made any comments he would always think deeply. His suggestions were illuminating but tentative – anxious not to pontificate or to narrow horizons. A hand on the arm to guide, not a collar and leash around the neck. After making a suggestion my hands would leap to the keyboard. “Wait! Think what you want to do before playing”. Like a farmer calm and heedless of the seemingly barren ground viewed out of season, he had a holistic approach to artistic development. “It’s not how you play now that interests me, my dear boy, but how you will play in ten years time”. He would never demonstrate because he didn’t want the student to imitate him, but rather to think, to listen, to form a unique personality slowly and surely. Competitions would draw from him a gentle contempt. Why face an evil, however necessary, before the appointed time? To jump in to that circuit early merely meant that there was less time to develop musical maturity — and a lifetime is too short for that.
I had my lessons at his house in Hope Street, Liverpool, until he moved to London (he taught at both the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music), and I loved to look at his desk where letters of Proust lay alongside Liszt first editions – and tobacco tins. We would listen to some old recordings: “Hear how marvelously Cortot shades the pedal at the end of the A flat Etude of Chopin”. The LP would turn round and round, and then, that moment of magic from fifty years earlier would shine through the speakers – a shimmer of sound which tickled the ear. I looked through the gossamer clouds at Gordon, his white goatee beard divided in two by a smile of total exhilaration, the pipe held in a cumulus cradle. Then his wife, Dorothy, would swing open the thick, heavy door and bring in a tray of coffee and biscuits. My father used to sit in on most of these lessons and I loved to hear them discuss pipes and politics – they both had rather radical, left-leaning views on the latter. Often in the afternoons of my morning lessons a guest would be expected: friends such as Sir Charles Groves, students like John Ogden or the young Scouser Simon Rattle, or some mysterious person needing a place to practise. On one occasion the latter was Sviatoslav Richter who was playing further down the street that same evening. I wish I’d hung around to bump into him!
Like my father, Gordon died when I was in my late teens – too early for me to appreciate fully their wisdom or to ask all of the questions which have surfaced since. But we carry with us our parents’ genes and influences to the end of our lives, and Gordon’s musical inspiration remains with me as strongly today as ever before.
I have worked with many fascinating pianists through the years. One particularly memorable lesson took place at the top of a winding mountain road in Freetown. I was thirteen years old and we had moved to Sierra Leone as my father, a paediatrician, wanted to work in his own country, which badly needed doctors... And piano teachers.
After combing the country, my parents stumbled upon the only piano teacher to be had – with her grand total of five students. Luckily for me, Luba Johnson was the real thing. A masters graduate of the Moscow conservatory, married to a Sierra Leonean politician, Luba was a fiery, outspoken, passionate woman who taught in the best Russian tradition – intense, remorseless, and everything, everything, was about the music. Her piano was terrible - after years in the tropics it had a strange underwater sound, stiff keys and a rocky stool, but all this ceased to matter the moment the lesson began. The music just took over.
Lessons were only every six weeks as we lived in Bo, five hours' drive away. Each lesson lasted many hours, as we always had a lot to get through. I started piano in Tasmania but had mostly played Bach and had little awareness of style and interpretation of other composers. In Sierra Leone I continued on my own, with some help from my mother who having played piano herself could guide and encourage me. We had a Yamaha upright shipped over from England, and had to put dry rice and a kerosene lamp inside it during the rainy season to protect it from the humidity.
I remember this particular lesson as I'd had a severe stomach ache for two days before it, but was dying to go as the six weeks were up. I had some fugues and Romantic pieces I wanted to work on with Luba. When we arrived after the long journey, my stomach ache was considerably worse, but all was forgotten during the next four hours as Luba unfolded and illuminated the layers of mystery in the fugues, and we dove deeper into the heart of the other pieces, working on touch, phrasing, cantabile... I felt exhilarated after the lesson and couldn't wait to get home and start practising.
Our car trip back however, was torment, and two days later I was operated on for acute appendicitis.
But I have always remembered how that lesson swept me off to another time and place, despite my physical condition, where the notes on the page took on vivid new meaning and new life in my fingers, and everything was about the music.
Mr Hurst came into our lives on the suburban fringe of Melbourne with his dapper suit and Valiant sedan when I was six years old. With his cultured Jewish ways and kindly manner, he coaxed my elder brother Chris and me to play duet versions of Hot Cross Buns and The Sailor’s Hornpipe and patiently, if unenthusiastically, guided us through John Thompson’s lacklustre and old-fashioned Piano Course.
Although he taught me exactly the wrong way to play octaves, he did the one thing that all good teachers ought to remember to do: he encouraged. And along the way he introduced me to one of my lifelong loves, the sublime and gnostic musical world of Robert Schumann.
Soon afterwards, I was sent to learn with a rather formidable lady, Marta Rostas, a Hungarian emigrée who had trained at the Liszt Academy and who brooked no nonsense from rough boys. I cried at my very first lesson, not because of any harshness of hers but because of the standard she embodied, which I instantly sensed was beyond me. She was best friends with Mr Hurst’s first wife Hedy, who would teach me German and meet me in Vienna while I was a student there, many years later. But that’s another story.
According to my parents, I actually started with a Suzuki teacher at age of 5 - and that association lasted one brief lesson. Firstly, the teacher requested that I bow (as is Suzuki tradition). I steadfastly refused. She asked again. I again refused. She pleaded. I continued to hold firm. She therefore informed my mother that I was not a suitable student for her studio or the Suzuki system. The lesson lasted 20 minutes. It was as a result of that experience that I moved to the local "traditional" teacher who happened to live on my street. Twenty-five years later, I still look back on that seemingly inauspicious event and laugh to myself. Funnily enough, now I have no problem at all with bowing. Perhaps it was her.
It was 1967. After listening to two brothers and a sister have their piano lessons each morning for 3-4 years, it was now my turn to join the ranks reaching the age of 6. It was exciting to be sitting on the piano stool next to Dad, on my scheduled morning, learning the names of notes, hand positions and little pieces. I remember Dadʼs gentle guidance, his soft voice, and his fairly immediate irritation when things went awry. I was now playing "just like them", knowing the family could hear me!
Dadʼs mother taught her three sons, so first piano lessons are a family tradition. In those early piano years I remember my closest brother in age, Bernard, playing with a beautiful lyrical tone, and my fatherʼs beautiful passionate playing of Lindley Evansʼs Rhapsody. My oldest brother John introduced us all to the world of blues piano and rock. Dad also introduced us to Gene Ammons Boogie Woogie styles, Zez Confreyʼs novelty piano styles and the joyous Fats Waller jazz style. Dad loved all music.
The magic ingredient, you ask? a super Mum of course: Margaret Hunt, always there behind the scenes, and still going strong today.
I am a great believer that the first lessons are the most important. The right decisions must be made and will leave a lasting impression on an artistic temperament.
The opportunity to play duets with my first piano teacher in Holland set my ear to the piano sound I am now working on, both for myself as my own students. This search goes on to the end of our lives.
Viva the search. This is happiness!