Nov. 22 Book review: Piano Lessons: a Memoir

9058987 2‘Piano Lessons: a Memoir’
by Anna Goldsworthy

Book review

By Kevin Moore

Felix Mendelssohn once wrote to the effect “It’s not that music is too vague for words, but rather too specific.” He was right, and words about music will always fall short of the experience. Music’s emotional and spiritual depth is simply beyond their domain.

Having said that, however, every true musician casts a very special light on anything that he/she performs, and that can extend to words. And Anna Goldsworthy’s book, Piano Lessons: a Memoir indeed has a very special light within it. It’s a treasure that reveals the intertwining of her life and her experience of music. It is compelling reading and takes us from her years as a young piano student in Adelaide in Australia, then as a developing pianist of obvious sensitivity and depth of thought, and finally to a serious artist with a commensurate facility with words.

I couldn’t put it down. The very first pages bring you into her very close family and the day she met her new piano teacher. And you feel like you are there. Although it all centers on piano lessons and the author’s gradual development as an artist, it is through a very personal, sometimes private lens. You feel her insecurity and fear as a young, very bright girl who doesn’t know if she wants to pursue this all-consuming thing called music. And as a young girl who encounters stiff competition from some nasty peers, she has close friends and, most important, a teacher who understands. It has just enough very personal revelation to feel real and very human.

More important, the book is a special tribute to her teacher and mentor, Russian immigrant Eleanora Sivan, who had taught at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. It’s all about the special bond that made Sivan a kind of second parent. This has deep resonance for anyone who has studied music seriously. The musical and life wisdom imparted by her teacher goes to the essence of what music is about. The profound nature of music and the deep spiritual, intellectual and emotional corners that it fills in human life just spills out of this account.

As her story goes on she comes to know her teacher more as a person, which deepens their connection. It seems that every aspect of her life is filled with the wisdom of this kind, generous and demanding teacher. Near the end, when her teacher seems near death in the hospital, she flies home from Texas immediately, feeling as if her own life is somehow imperiled.

Her teacher’s witticisms, often in quite fractured English, are priceless and wise and, in fact, the most important part of this book for musicians. “We are not teaching piano playing. We are teaching philosophy and life and music digested.” Yes!

“Not! Stop! Not! You are playing, not listening….Never just playing, but listening inside.”

“What is the result of a clever, clever heart and a very kind and generous brain? Clever hands!” Of course!

“Never beautify Mozart. He is beautiful enough already.” This is particularly wise advice, especially in our current era of “gilding the lily”, which often seems the predominant ethos of the concert stage.

After playing the first movement of a Mozart Sonata the author was told, “Every piece tells a story. Next week I want you to tell me story of this second movement…Every note is important, every sound says something.”

The chapters are titled with composer’s names: Bach, Mozart, Shostakovich, Debussy, Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart (again!), Chopin, Liszt, Prokofiev, Bach, (again!), Rachmaninov, Beethoven (again!), Shostakovich (again!), Khachaturian, Mozart (and again!), Chopin (again!). In each case, Mrs. Sivan provides words that lead her student into the special world of that composer and their music.

“Bach is never finished. Life in this music is ENDLESS… What Bach gives? Peace, of course…For Bach, all endings are happy. Why? Because he is deeply religious in belief. Brings full peace: peace of contact, of surroundings, of support, of communications, and of respect.”

“Who is Mozart? Absolute genius composer, of course. But more: he was music himself. And we have only one Mozart. In my opinion was the face of God.”

“Shostakovich was epitome of dignity, of culture, of moral. Just unbelievable quality this man was.”

“I repeat: music is logically organized fantasy. You must develop your emotional logic. And your taste.”

“My darling, life in music always learning, always growing. What is the difference between a good and great pianist? Little bit more hearing, little bit more understanding, little bit more logic in fantasy, little bit more fantasy in logic. Do you understand how little bits? But these little bits take whole lifetime.”

“To be great artist, of course you must first be great scientist, you must understand every little thing! Without organization, it is chaos. Anarchy. But without freedom, it is…dead. It is post-mortem examination.”

“People talk about talent. What is this talent? Talent does not play itself. Talent is money in the bank, only. How you spend it, this is up to you.”

“Of course, liar cannot play piano. Impossible. With words we can find ways to cover, but with sounds, not. And sometimes not necessary to lie. Sometimes enough to say nothing…Very important to have foundation of morals. If you lie, your sounds will be killed immediately.”

“Not all students will be professional pianist, but equally important to educate audiences. In some ways teaching is highest calling. Because must be able to do, first, but then translate into words. And sometimes what we try to explain is so…elusive. Like tiny fish in your palm, you catch, and then- boom! –– it jump out of your hand.”

And on and on…in every case, this book is filled with touching and insightful thoughts!

One profound thought comes from the very ill Sivan near the
end of the book. “I was from absolutely atheistic background, completely. More than atheistic: communistic. But I came to God through the music. Look at this beautiful world- all for nothing? We don’t know that. But definitely, definitely something, otherwise this music not exist.”

This book is so filled with Mrs. Sivan’s deep wisdom that I want to quote every last little bit of it. Better yet, I can say honestly that every musician should read this book. And every reader will be touched and enriched by it. I certainly was.

Title: Piano Lessons: a Memoir, by Anna Goldsworthy
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (October 12, 2010)
Language: English
Format: Hardcover, 256 pages
ISBN: 978-0-312-64628-8
Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.8 x 1 inches

  3 comments for “Nov. 22 Book review: Piano Lessons: a Memoir

  1. Ms Brenda Large
    November 22, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    Thank you so much for this excellent review. I hope you will contribute similar reviews about books dealing with music.

  2. November 24, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    Great review, Kevin. Sounds like a book I’m going to have to pick up!

  3. cnysyracusegir
    December 3, 2010 at 5:00 am

    Book reviews, Met simulcast reviews, very occasional chamber music and theater reviews — what’s up with not reviewing the SSO? I can get book and Met Opera reviews elsewhere, but I’d love reviews of LOCAL arts. Don’t you think the symphony deserved reviewing?

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