Book of the Week: "Piano Lessons" by Anna Goldsworthy

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Dec. 3 2010 3:35 PM

Book of the Week: "Piano Lessons" by Anna Goldsworthy

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"We are teaching philosophy and life and music digested," said Russian immigrant Eleonora Sivan to Anna Goldsworthy, the first time they met. Speaking in an English that was heavily shaped by her native language, Sivan turned even the simplest declarative sentences into profound existential observations. "Music is yours. Instrument is you are ," she said to the nervous young piano student. Goldsworthy was overwhelmed but her parents were thrilled when Sivan, who is on the Liszt list (as in, taught by someone who was taught by someone who was taught by Liszt), agreed to take the nine-year-old on as a student. Years later, Sivan explained, she felt sorry for the "ill-equipped" girl who tried so hard to play Mozart for her. Now a highly successful classical pianist and writer in Australia, Goldsworthy describes her many years as Sivan’s student in Piano Lessons . With equal lyricism and poise-qualities that are surely influenced by her musical training-she documents the extraordinary process of creation that occurs when a teacher and student who are brilliant and diligent work together for many years.

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When she began her lessons, Goldsworthy viewed piano pieces as "obstacle courses for fingers." She was both oppressed and exulted by the special burden of playing two hours a day. But over time, Sivan-discerning, generous, and wise-helped her stretch. "Of course, liar cannot play piano,"she told Goldsworthy. "Impossible. With words we can find ways to cover, but with sounds, not." Together they studied the greats-Bach, Shostakovich, Beethoven. "Beethoven lyricism never just sweet. Must not beautify, ever. Like Mozart, Beethoven does not need your make-up." said Sivan.

Even though Goldsworthy’s book is most memorably about understanding and playing music, her account of learning how to practice, perform and compete has wider resonance. She vividly conveys the self-deprecation, grand ambition, and OCD-style blips of childhood ("If the next car that drives down our street is a blue car, I will get into the conservatorium. If the next car is a red car, I will not get in, and my little sister will contractrabies."). In her first competition, she enters the backstage area, proud to be there, only to find that the other waiting students have achieved much higher levels than she. From the wings, she watches a young prodigy, experiencing the girl’s performance as "type of violence"exploding the naive self-satisfaction with which she had entered the room. "But must learn not to depend on opinion, only learning from it," advised Sivan.

Goldsworthy gradually masters harder pieces, wins tough competitions, enters a conservatorium, performs to ever-larger audiences, and later studies at the prestigious Cliburn Institute in Texas. In the background, her supportive family hover, including her father, a medical doctor and acclaimed Australian novelist. Peter Goldsworthy sat in on many of Anna’s lessons, and in fact later wrote a novel which included a fictionalized Sivan. ("You are lucky girl, by the way, to have such interested father taking notes," Sivan told young Anna.)

Back in their very first meeting, Sivan asked: "What is the result of a clever, clever heart, and a very kind and generous brain?" Goldsworthy did not know. "It is clever hands," said Sivan. It is also this book.

Christine Kenneally is the author of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. Her writings can be found on the blog www.christinekenneally.com.

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