Listening Lessons

Putting the memoirs of an Australian concert pianist near the top of my fall reading list was unexpected. But when I heard about Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano Lessons (2010, St. Martin’s), I decided to give it a go for two good reasons. One was that Philip Levine, the U.S. Poet Laureate for 2011-12, selected it as his entry for The Millions’ A Year in Reading 2011 book list. Ever since I read his seminal collection What Work Is some twenty years ago, I have deeply admired the integrity and commitment of Levine’s writing. So when he wrote in his review of Goldsworthy’s memoirs, which are really a tribute to her mentor, that he had “never read a better depiction of a great mentor and of how true learning takes place,” I knew I had to read this book.

The second reason is because I’m also a teacher. And because teaching is always challenging, I try never to miss an opportunity to improve. This is why I also took to heart Levine’s admonishment that “every teacher of anything should read this book.” Because I happen to teach at an arts college, I also felt that any insight I might gain into the minds of precocious, often iconoclastic young artists would be invaluable. So, there it was, a concert pianist’s memoirs on the top of my to-read pile.

As it turns out, putting it on top was completely worth it. Goldsworthy’s brisk but never hasty pacing allows her readers to trace the development of her self-insight and maturity without ever being bogged down in either adolescent or artistic conceits. Instead, watching her, as a young teen, lose interest in poolside suntans and the passwords to elite social cliques in favor of a fierce dedication to practice, mastery, and understanding of classical music is little short of inspiring. Moreover, through her skillful narration we learn that her development into a serious, recognized artist is braided with her own sometimes grueling process of self-acceptance. And in sharing this with us so generously, Goldsworthy offers us a gift of human understanding.

Guiding this process is the presence and voice of her dedicated teacher and mentor, Mrs. Sivan, a Russian pianist and émigré living in Goldsworthy’s hometown of Adelaide, Australia. Though Goldsworthy shows us little of Sivan away from the piano bench, we nevertheless come to know her intimately through her occasionally tactless but always insightful maxims about learning to understand music. One key to Sivan’s teaching lay in approaching music through the psychology of it creators. Mozart, she tells Anna, “was born happy of everything” and therefore his music must be played as pure joy. Shostakovich, she says, was “epitome of dignity, of culture, of moral.” About Beethoven Sivan claims:

Beethoven had terrible—how do you say—people skills, and preferred instruments to human beings. Constantly feel his social insecurity, and unacceptance. But at same time had huge love for humanity.

In her broken English, which Goldsworthy capably and judiciously captures without lapsing into parody, Sivan’s teachings often sound like verses or mantras. Throughout she exhorts Anna not to play but to hear the music, to respond to the sounds. And indeed it is in tracing her struggle to listen, her fight against her self, that we see her truly grow, through mindfulness, into self-acceptance and then full mastery of her art. Late in her memoir, Goldsworthy recounts a key piece of her mentor’s advice that at first resembles a koan but then takes on great power when we see it serves not only as the cornerstone of Sivan’s teaching, but also the instructive, lucid narrative that Goldsworthy has built:

‘What is the difference between good and great pianist?’ Mrs Sivan often asked.
‘I don’t know—what?’ This response seemed rhythmically necessary, like a knock-knock joke.
‘Little bits.’ She chuckled. ‘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.’

So, in the end, it’s not Goldsworthy’s prodigious talents, considerable privilege, or even her golden opportunities that help her achieve her dream of becoming a concert pianist. Instead, it’s the little bits—more work, more focus, more dedication, more willingness to accept the struggle—that make her make it. Hard work. Sacrifice. Those old ideals that Philip Levine knows a thing or two about. So does Goldsworthy in making this much more than your average memoir. Now, if I could only convey these lessons  to my students. Perhaps that’ll be easier when I fully—and finally—accept them first myself.

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