Anna Goldsworthy has been a freelance writer and literary critic for years – but her passion has always been the piano, and her career as a concert pianist. In her exquisite debut memoir, Piano Lessons she combines her talents for writing and music, writing about her long and passionate love affair with the piano and her special relationship with her gifted and dedicated teacher. Award-winning Australian novelist Andrea Goldsmith spoke to Anna about Piano Lessons for Readings' New Australian Writing Feature series.
Obsessive. Anxious. Egocentric. A perfectionist. In the current era, where the range of what constitutes normal behaviour for a child is hardly thicker than a fingernail, these qualities are invariably pathologised. Teachers recommend specialist intervention, parents whisk their ‘at risk’ child off to a psychiatrist or a psychologist or some other person equipped to plane the edges, polyfill the frailties, rein in the extremes.
Obsession, anxiety, singular focus, perfectionism typify the creative individual – whether musical prodigy, emerging scientist or established artist. Indeed, without such qualities the ranks of great musicians, artists, writers and original scientists would be bland and depleted. It is these qualities, after all, that acquaint a child with a passion in the first place, and then hold her/him at the keyboard, the writing desk, the easel, the laboratory bench while that passion shapes and develops a raw talent.
There is so much suspicion of passion these days, particularly when it comes to children. And should there be a leap of the heart, a lurch of the imagination, it is readily stifled in the raucous flash and jangle of our carnival culture.
Anna Goldsworthy’s wonderful and generous memoir Piano Lessons shows what it is to be driven – obsessed – by music, by ambition, by excellence. At the centre of her book is a remarkable teacher, the Russian pianist, Eleonora Sivan. Mrs Sivan, as she is known throughout Anna’s childhood and adolescence, is the sort of teacher that every child deserves but few ever have the good fortune to know. Anna Goldsworthy has honoured a great teacher by setting down her wisdom, her humour, and her great passion for music. Piano Lessons is dedicated to Eleonora, as well as Anna’s two Reubens: her grandfather who connected her with Eleonora Sivan in the first place, and her son Reuben, just nine months old as his mother’s first book is published.
We arrange to meet in the evening, after young Reuben has settled for the night and after Anna’s own teaching and practising have finished. I begin by asking about Eleonora Sivan’s response to Piano Lessons, particularly in the light of her insistence, recounted in the book, that artists need always to acknowledge the gifts other people bring to their own gift. Anna says she was tremendously anxious about Eleonora’s response. ‘I intended it as an honouring of her. It’s a privilege to have such a woman in your life.’ And she smiles. ‘Eleonora loved it.’ Later in our conversation Anna says that Eleonora will always be her teacher. ‘Her approval has always been very important to me.’
Eleonora is present all through the pages of Piano Lessons, her voice strong. ‘I’ve had her speaking to me for hours every week since the age of nine,’ Anna says. ‘Her voice is in my head.’
For the past several years Anna has taught piano at the University of Melbourne and I wonder how her own teaching has been affected by such a powerful model. ‘It’s really hard in so many ways, partly because I DO have this example. I really can’t emulate her, I’m different. But yes’ – and again a smile – ‘I am part of Eleonora’s music tradition.’ It is a tradition that stretches back to Liszt. As grandfather Reuben told the nine-year-old Anna: ‘Mrs Sivan is from Russia … She’s on the Liszt list … Liszt taught the teacher of her teacher’s teacher.’
Piano Lessons honours a great teacher, but at the same time it is also the story of a vocation. Anna was a top student at high school. She won prizes for maths and for overall scholastic achievement; it seems she could have done anything. So why music?
‘Perhaps because it was the hardest. The piano demands all of you. It demands the integration of emotional things, spiritual things and intellectual things. As a consequence it is very demanding but also very rewarding.’ There’s a pause before she adds, ‘I didn’t really choose. Music reels you in.’
‘The real choice was actually between playing the piano and writing,’ she continues. ‘Not between maths and music or medicine and music.’ Anna’s sister is a doctor, as are both her parents – her father is Peter Goldsworthy, the novelist and poet. ‘Writing this book has been a good way of bringing writing and music together,’ she says.
Anna plays in the Seraphim Trio, she gives solo concerts, she teaches, she wrote a book, she writes regular articles for The Monthly, and she and her partner Nicholas Purcell have a nine-month-old son. I remark how very efficient she must be. She laughs. ‘No one pays you by the hour for practising.’
Like many high achievers, Anna has been subject to intense anxiety, better managed these days, but a muscular intrusion when she was younger. ‘The anxiety controlled my behaviour in many ways,’ she said. ‘The piano teaches you that you can have some control – but only up to a point.’
For a highly anxious person there surely must have been difficulty in reconciling technical virtuosity, control and discipline with the freedom of interpretation, imagination and emotional expression demanded by the piano. ‘The freedom begins on top of the work,’ she says. But for an anxious person, that loosening up, that freedom, must have been so difficult, even terrifying.
‘Performing is a great challenge,’ she says. ‘Some performances have that special edge and you take that on faith. Fortunately, over time your playing does become more consistent and the range of possibilities narrows.’ Anna tells me about a concert she gave the previous week when everything came together. ‘I felt fantastic.’ And as she speaks, this pianist who describes herself as ‘quite reserved’ radiates pleasure and excitement. She is fired by music.
Yet, given her intense anxiety, there seems to be something almost masochistic in her choice of a performance-focused career. ‘There must be something which attracts me to that unpredictability [of performance] or else I wouldn’t be doing it,’ she says.
I suggest it would require a great deal of courage, but she does not accept what was offered as a compliment. She has learned strategies to cope with excesses of anxiety. (‘Whenever you go up on stage you need to be a little bit anxious or else you are not taking it seriously.’) And of course, she has now amassed considerable experience. ‘With artistic maturity, you learn that you can’t take your self-criticism up on stage. You can’t be second-guessing yourself. When you’re practising you can, but not on stage.’
Still I pursued the anxiety issue, imagining what it was like for her younger self to perform. ‘[Performing] is an extreme form of human experience,’ Anna says. ‘At its best it is the most wonderful experience of grace … a sort of addictive pleasure – maybe like an extreme sport in this sense. The adrenaline pay-off is consequently very high too. And I always loved music. And Eleonora came into my life. And she compelled me.’
I ask her about the Chopin B-flat minor sonata which she mentions in her book. Anna sings the opening bars of the first movement and unconsciously her beautiful slender hands play the notes in the air. It is always a privilege to witness an artist revealing her art. Readers of Piano Lessons will know this privilege in the pages of Anna Goldsworthy’s wonderful book.
Andrea Goldsmith’s most recent novel is Reunion.