Girls at the Piano

Virginia Lloyd

Girls at the Piano
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Girls at the Piano

Virginia Lloyd

Virginia Lloyd spent much of her childhood and adolescence learning and playing the piano and thought she would make a career as a pianist. When that didn’t happen, she spent a long time wondering about those years of study: had they been wasted? What was their purpose? This intriguing memoir explores those questions and investigates the mystery of the author’s very musical and deeply unhappy grandmother Alice, and how their lives - both at and away from the piano - intersected and diverged.

Girls at the Piano also explores the changing relationship between women and the piano over the course of the instrument’s history, taking us from the salons of 18th-century Europe to an amateur jazz workshop in Manhattan in the early 21st century.

Funny, tender and fascinating, Girls at the Piano is an elegant and multi-layered meditation on identity, ambition and doubt, and on how learning the piano had a profound effect on two women worlds and generations apart. It is essential reading for music lovers everywhere, and for anyone who has undertaken their own voyage around a piano.

Review

Entering the world of some memoirs feels like an intimate conversation with a stranger who will, over the course of your time together, become your new best friend. Reading Virginia Lloyd’s exquisite memoir Girls at the Piano, tracing her intense relationship with the piano (‘my first love’), I burned with affinity for the shy, deeply focused girl-to-woman who was as ill-at-ease in the social world her peers seemed to instinctively inhabit as she was inherently connected to her music.

Girls at the Piano is the work of a memoirist who has finely tuned her craft (this follows her excellent first memoir, about love, loss and grief, A Young Widow’s Guide to Home Improvement). On one level, Lloyd tells the story of what the piano has meant to her: how it shaped the girl and woman she became, without her realising it at the time; how it gave her a secure vantage point from which to engage with the wider world; how as a creative outlet, it taught her focus and discipline – but also, how the constraints of competition (which encouraged technical mastery and discouraged experimentation) ultimately stifled her love of the instrument. Using a high-school reunion as a framework for circling through the past, she reconnects with her passion for the piano, while interrogating why she lost it in the first place. There are echoes (but never copies) of Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano Lessons, one of my favourite memoirs of the past decade.

Lloyd’s journey is interwoven with the experiences of girls at the piano through history (from Clara Schumann to her own musically gifted grandmother): how the instrument and conventions around it have been both a vessel for creative expression, and a means of containing that expression within polite boundaries. This is a beautiful celebration of passionate creativity (whether professional or amateur) and how it can enrich and shape our lives.


Jo Case works as a bookseller at Readings Doncaster.

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