Anna Goldsworthy was nine years old when she met Eleanora Sivan, the charismatic Russian émigré and world-class pianist who became her piano teacher. Piano Lessons is the story of what Mrs. Sivan brought to Anna's lessons: a love of music, a respect for life, a generous spirit, and the courage to embrace a musical life.
Beautifully written and strikingly honest, Piano Lessons takes the reader on a journey into the heart and meaning of music. As Anna discovers passion and ambition, confronts doubt and disappointment, and learns about much more than tone and technique, Mrs. Sivan's wisdom guides her:"We are not teaching piano playing. We are teaching philosophy and life and music digested."
"What is intuition? Knowledge that has come inside.""My darling, we must sit and work."
Piano Lessons reminds us all how an extraordinary teacher can change a life completely. A work that will appeal to all music lovers and anyone who has ever taken a music lesson, Piano Lessons will also touch the heart of anyone who has ever loved a teacher.
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ANNA GOLDSWORTHY is an award-winning pianist who travels and performs internationally as a soloist and chamber musician. She records for the ABC Classics label and her most recent CD 'Piano Lessons' is based on the music that features in her memoir 'Piano Lessons'. Her writing has appeared in The Monthly and Best Australian Essays, among others. annagoldsworthy.comExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Piano Lessons Chapter 1. Bach
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 grandfather’s natural authority, and saw no reason for this arrangement 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.’
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.
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?’
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? I was not sure that I could make such a commitment.
‘You find time to brush your teeth every day,’ he said, but even that seemed a barely endurable ordeal. He never enforced this practice regime, but had a laissez-faire approach to teaching, humming quietly while I played, occasionally pencilling in a remark on my music: Dynamics. Once he told me not to move my bum up the piano seat to reach a high note. Bum. I giggled to hear the word.
The most passionate I ever saw him was when my father told him I hated Stevie Wonder’s ‘Lately’. ‘How could you hate “Lately”?’ he asked. His hippy eyes widened; his head shook to a disbelieving slo-mo beat. ‘Wow. It’s such a beautiful song.’
I could not explain why I hated ‘Lately’ any more than I could explain why I hated milk, or trains, or the wood shop. There was something about its chromaticism that bothered me, something unsettling about the way my father crooned it, late at night, at the piano: Lately I’ve been havin’ the strangest feelings with no vivid reason here to find.
‘I just hate it. It’s yuck,’ I said.
As a six-year-old, the first piece I had loved was an anonymous gigue from the Australian Music Examinations Board Preliminary book. At the climax, it detoured briefly into the secondary dominant, as I would later learn. There was a piquancy to this, as B flat yielded to B natural and then reasserted itself. It was the piece’s sweet spot: a rudimentary version of what George Sand called Chopin’s ‘blue note’. I played these two bars over and over again; I wanted to rub them into my skin. After too many repetitions, they lost their magic, and I had to return to the piece’s beginning to recharge them.
One Sunday lunch at my grandparents’ house, the men retreated to the music room for their weekly Chopin play-off. My grandfather began with a sprightly waltz, my father played the pol...
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