Piano Lessons

A Memoir

Anna Goldsworthy

St. Martin's Press

Piano Lessons
 
Chapter 1. Bach

It was my grandfather who found her. He pronounced her name with an extravagant French accent that spoke of her mystery, her glamour.

Mrs Siv-an.

She had recently arrived in Adelaide with her husband and teenage son and was teaching piano at a western-suburbs high school. My grandfather was a regional director of the Education Department, and he had chanced upon one of her lessons during a routine inspection.

‘He was true gentleman, of course, very charming,’ she told me later, ‘but with a natural authority.’ She furrowed her brow and pointed her finger: ‘You will teach my granddaughter.’

I was nine years old and learning piano from a local jazz muso. After our lessons, he liked to join my parents in the kitchen, roll strange-smelling cigarettes and talk about Stevie Wonder. My father had for many years resisted my grandfather’s natural authority, and saw no reason for this arrangement to change, until one afternoon the jazz muso rolled a cigarette and announced it was time for me to move on.

‘She got an A for First Grade, man! Where to from here?’

It was no longer only my grandfather’s idea: my father could safely take it up.

‘Mrs Sivan is from Russia,’ he told me that night at dinner. ‘She’s on the Liszt list.’

‘What’s the list list?’

‘The Liszt list. Liszt taught the teacher of her teacher’s teacher.’

‘Who’s Liszt?’

He gave me one of his looks. ‘A very famous composer.’

I liked the sound of that. If I learned piano from Mrs Sivan, then I too would be on the Liszt list. It sat well with the grand narrative I had in mind for my life.

 

A week later, my grandfather drove me to Mrs Sivan’s house for the audition; my mother sat beside him wearing her best lavender pant-suit, smelling of Chanel. As we drove down North East Road, he recommended I pay serious attention to directions.

‘We now approach Ascot Avenue, elsewhere known as Portrush Road. Here we undertake a right-hand turn.’

This was a journey that would be tracked into my body over the following years, as I made it once a week, then twice a week, and then sometimes every day. But for now, my grandfather might have been taking me on an intergalactic voyage from my suburban Adelaide childhood to somewhere very far away.

‘At this point, we arrive at our destination,’ he announced, as we pulled up outside a cream-brick bungalow. ‘The home of the distinguished Mrs Eleonora Siv-an, formerly of the Leningrad Conservatorium of Music.’

At the front door there were courtly nods and handshakes all round, and my grandfather and mother speaking too loudly.

‘And how are you enjoying your new house, Mrs Sivan?’ my grandfather asked.

‘Yes, we like enormous. Much more comfortable than Pennington Hostel.’

They all laughed, and I dared look up. How to describe her? In my mind she is less a character than a force. Music is coiled inside her under a pressure that demands expression, and from the moment she opened the door she did not stop talking. She must have been in her forties, but was not much taller than my nine-year-old self, and had the peachy, springy skin of an infant. I met her powerful gaze and blushed and dropped my eyes.

‘We are not teaching piano playing,’ she said. Her English was new, and I was not sure if I had heard correctly. ‘We are teaching philosophy and life and music digested. Music is yours. Instrument is you are. Come in, please come in.’

She ushered us into her living room and directed me to an ancient upright piano with yellowing keys.

‘Music is logically created fantasy,’ she continued. ‘When I give information, this information comes to student to digest. When digestion coming, the nutrition is his own – is not mine.’

I scanned the room, searching for something of the known world to which I could anchor myself. The piano was pushed against a wall painted a lurid, metallic pink. In the middle of this wall there was a calendar, and I pinned my hopes on this.

‘What is the result of a clever, clever heart, and a very kind and generous brain?’

I stared at my mother, willing her to answer, but she avoided my gaze.

‘It is clever hands!’ Mrs Sivan declared. ‘Indeed it is,’ said my grandfather. ‘Now, I imagine you would like to hear Anna play her Mozart sonata.’

‘Of course. Please, make yourself comfortable. Always think first of music, and not to impress us. And never start until you are ready. This is first arts of any music: learn to listen to silence, atmospheric silence. Only then can we understand future and perspective.’

‘Where should I begin?’ My voice was very small.

‘What?’

My father had urged me to begin with the slow movement, because I played it ‘very musically’. ‘Should I begin with the second movement?’

She looked shocked. ‘Always best to start story from beginning, yes? Of course must be first movement.’

At this stage, I viewed piano pieces as obstacle courses for fingers, in which the object was getting through to the end, largely unscathed. The first movement of the Mozart sonata was a hazardous place, but I dodged a few accidentals in the development section and made it to the double barline.

There was silence. I looked at my mother, who looked at my grandfather, who looked at Mrs Sivan.

‘Thank you,’ she said, finally. ‘You like chocolate, yes? Come with me, and I give wonderful chocolate.’

My mother nodded encouragingly, and I followed Mrs Sivan out to the kitchen, where she gave me a Baci chocolate, wrapped in silver foil, and then another, and then two more. ‘You are good girl, and now must enjoy your life.’ She called in her teenage son, Dmitri, to sit with me, and returned to the lounge room to speak to my mother and grandfather.

I looked around the room as my heart beat wildly in my chest. There were framed photographs of dogs on the walls, dressed in spectacles and hats.

‘Who took these photos?’ I asked Dmitri. He had dark hair and gentle eyes.

‘My uncle.’ He named the dogs, one by one.

‘Do you come from Russia?’

‘Yes.’

I had no further small talk, so I munched through my hoard of chocolate in silence.

Eventually, Mrs Sivan collected me. ‘I give you kiss,’ she said. ‘Nine-year-old girl who tries so hard. Of course you must be allowed to learn. But always remember, sounds themselves are emotional response and reflection of contents of your heart and mind. Music is not just playing right notes in right time, but digestion hugely important. Enormous job really, but so rewarding, and so makes it worth to live!’

There was a festive atmosphere in the car on the way home.

‘Fancy that!’ said my mother. ‘My clever baby.’

‘My dear, you are to be commended on making such a fine impression,’ my grandfather declared.

Later, Mrs Sivan explained that she had taken pity on me. That any child who laboured through a Mozart sonata, so ill-equipped, deserved to be taught.

‘Her acceptance is not without conditions,’ my grandfather continued. ‘Mrs Sivan expects you to practise more. Two hours a day. But not all at once. Forty minutes before school, forty minutes in the afternoon and forty minutes in the evening.’

Two hours a day. It sounded catastrophic, but also thrilling.

 

The jazz muso had asked me to practise for five minutes every day.

Five minutes every single day? For the rest of my life until I died? I was not sure that I could make such a commitment.

‘You find time to brush your teeth every day,’ he said, but even that seemed a barely endurable ordeal. He never enforced this practice regime, but had a laissez-faire approach to teaching, humming quietly while I played, occasionally pencilling in a remark on my music: Dynamics. Once he told me not to move my bum up the piano seat to reach a high note. Bum. I giggled to hear the word.

The most passionate I ever saw him was when my father told him I hated Stevie Wonder’s ‘Lately’. ‘How could you hate “Lately”?’ he asked. His hippy eyes widened; his head shook to a disbelieving slo-mo beat. ‘Wow. It’s such a beautiful song.’

I could not explain why I hated ‘Lately’ any more than I could explain why I hated milk, or trains, or the wood shop. There was something about its chromaticism that bothered me, something unsettling about the way my father crooned it, late at night, at the piano: Lately I’ve been havin’ the strangest feelings with no vivid reason here to find.

‘I just hate it. It’s yuck,’ I said.

 

As a six-year-old, the first piece I had loved was an anonymous gigue from the Australian Music Examinations Board Preliminary book. At the climax, it detoured briefly into the secondary dominant, as I would later learn. There was a piquancy to this, as B flat yielded to B natural and then reasserted itself. It was the piece’s sweet spot: a rudimentary version of what George Sand called Chopin’s ‘blue note’. I played these two bars over and over again; I wanted to rub them into my skin. After too many repetitions, they lost their magic, and I had to return to the piece’s beginning to recharge them.

One Sunday lunch at my grandparents’ house, the men retreated to the music room for their weekly Chopin play-off. My grandfather began with a sprightly waltz, my father played the polonaise that was my bedtime lullaby, and then my uncle trumped them both with the Fantasie-Impromptu.

‘Bravo,’ applauded my grandfather.

‘My smarter younger brother!’ my father cried out, jumping up from his seat. ‘Now kiss the carpet!’

As they wrestled, I slipped onto the piano stool and performed my gigue, hoping to silence them.

‘That’s lovely, darling,’ my grandmother said, bringing in the tea.

‘We really have to consider a more serious teacher,’ my grandfather declared, missing the point entirely.

When we returned home from the audition, I phoned my father at the surgery to tell him the good news.

‘Excellent work, Pie! What did you play?’

I confessed that I had only played the first movement, and there was a disappointed silence at the other end of the line. ‘Imagine the impression you would have made with the slow movement!’ he muttered, finally.

My first lesson with Mrs Sivan was scheduled for the following week, and to please my father I brought along the second movement. Now that I had passed the audition, I felt more confident: the hard work was done. I put the music on the stand and positioned my hands over a G-major chord.

‘Not!’ she called out. ‘Stop!’

‘But I haven’t even started.’

‘Of course music has started already!’ She reached over and took my hand. ‘The fingers are the orchestral musicians. The elbow must be here, for to conduct. We must hear the sound before, and then immediately we relax.’

As she demonstrated a chromatic scale, her hand had the grace of a small animal.

‘I am relaxed,’ I insisted, and imitated her, but my little finger stuck up vertically, an incriminating, impertinent erection.

‘Not. You are playing. Not listening.’

This was something she repeated for years before I started to understand it. It is only by hearing a sound first in your imagination that you relax. And it is only by relaxing that you properly hear that sound, be mindful of that sound, understand it as a sound in time, in context of a past and future.

‘Not. Not like this. This is spaghetti fingers.’

As I played, I skated across the top of the keyboard, but now she took my fingers and introduced them to the bottom of the keys, so that I felt the security of gravity, of contact with the earth. ‘Here, feel the depths.’ Slowly I would learn to live here, transferring these safe depths from sound to sound, avoiding spillage.

‘You must have strong fingers!’ She burrowed her fingertips into the top of my arm, so that I almost fell off the stool. ‘My darling, I am sorry! I forget my strength.’ She laughed. ‘Always remember, your hands must speak. Your hand and your instrument are one, not two, and your music inside of you.’

Somehow, over the years that followed, she transferred a physical knowledge from her hands to mine. You do not consciously mould your hands into sounds, any more than you consciously shape your mouth to form a word. You put them on the instrument, and you speak.

‘Every note is important,’ she said, ‘every sound says something.’

I examined the score warily, wondering what this F sharp said, what the meaning of this embellishment might be.

‘Every piece tells a story,’ she concluded. ‘Next week I want you to tell me story of this second movement.’

Back at home, I placed the Mozart score on the kitchen bench and stared miserably at the second movement, waiting for it to talk to me.

‘What sort of story?’ I asked my mother, as she prepared a stir-fry.

‘You’re good at stories. Why don’t you just make one up?’

‘Like what?’ I asked.

She stopped slicing vegetables and came over to look at the score. ‘I don’t know. A little girl goes to the zoo, or something.’

So I invented a story, and grafted it onto the movement. Here a little girl buys some fairy floss; here she sits in the rotunda; at the reprise, she meets a rhinoceros.

 

What did music mean to me at this time, when I knew nothing of it, when it was a language I did not yet speak? My dream was to be a singer, and I spent much of my spare time singing ‘You Light Up My Life’ in the study, twirling dramatically between verses, while my father accompanied me on piano. There was an older girl at my primary school, Erica, with a beautiful voice. How marvellous to be able to sing like that! Better than having supernatural powers! Much of my fantasy life involved Erica and me and Tiny Tina and Little Joey from Young Talent Time, dressed in flowing white robes, singing on a revolving stage under a disco ball. We looked like angels; sometimes we even were.

At carols night at school, Erica sang ‘The Little Drummer Boy’. ‘Do you think I’ll ever be able to sing like that?’ I asked my mother on the way home, with a false, preening modesty.

She thought for a moment. ‘No, darling, I don’t think you will.’

For the rest of the car trip, I sat in shocked silence. That was not what a mother was supposed to say.

I tried again a few weeks later. ‘Do you think I’ll ever go on Young Talent Time?’ I asked my parents as they watched the evening news. Perhaps if I caught them off-guard, they would give me the response I required.

They exchanged uncertain glances.

‘Maybe if you practise the piano really hard,’ my father offered.

My brother and I had a babysitter who claimed to play the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. In her interpretation, she transposed the first movement into E minor, forsook the left hand and soprano voice, and removed all harmonic progression, until the movement was reduced to an E-minor broken chord in second inversion, repeated indefinitely.

‘Do you want to hear “Moonlight” Sonata?’ I asked visitors, in preparation for Young Talent Time. I played this broken chord over and over again, faster and faster, my hand cramped in a spasm of effort. B—E—G, B—E—G, B-E-G, BEG, BEGBEGBEGBEG.

‘The “Moonlight” Sonata is a cinch,’ I said modestly. ‘It’s just B-E-G, or in other words beg.’

This was my knowledge base. This was what I took to my first lessons with Mrs Sivan. At the Leningrad Conservatorium, she had been preparing students for international competitions; before coming to Adelaide, she had never taught children. During our second lesson, I began telling her my story about the zoo.

‘This is where the little girl sees a chimpanzee,’ I said, pointing to a chromatic embellishment. My voice faltered. Even I did not believe it.

She took my hand: ‘My darling, we must sit and work.’

After my first few lessons, my parents swapped shifts at their doctors’ surgery so that my father could take me to Mrs Sivan’s house. For the next eight years, he accompanied me to my lessons every Tuesday afternoon, listening, day-dreaming, taking notes. Mrs Sivan was a born performer, and enjoyed having him there. I feel it myself now as a teacher: the extra voltage an audience lends to a room.

‘Let us talk about the fingers,’ Mrs Sivan said. ‘This finger, the pointer finger, is good student. This third finger, it is very – what you say – reliable. But this finger…oy.’ She shook her head. ‘Fourth finger very lazy!’

Her words were picturesque but to me entirely abstract. Over the years, my body came to understand them for me.

‘It is the thumb that makes a pianist,’ she said, and showed me what the thumb can do, her hands fluttering over the keyboard, kneading at it, producing sounds of striking intensity. Over time, I learnt that the thumb is the key to the hand’s relaxation, its checkpoint, navigator and conductor. There is an instinct to grab with the thumb, which turns it into a brake; pianistic fluency depends on letting it go, on trusting the hand.

Then she took my little finger into her hand: ‘It is the little finger that makes an artist.’ She winked her little finger at me, demonstrating its independence. ‘Like waving to a friend: bye bye.’ I imitated her movement and waved back to her, but at the piano I still used my little finger as an approximate edge to my hand. It took me a decade to understand its possibilities: the tiny candle-lights it sets at the top of a melody, its sleigh-bells, its coloratura, its left-hand foundations and invitations.

We began work on Bach’s small preludes.

‘Bach basically is father of all music,’ she told me. ‘He has huge influence on everybody. He was educator of Chopin, of Beethoven, of Schumann. And even all modern jazz already here. You can try anything, and Bach already do it. Of course, Bach never knew piano.’

‘Why not?’

‘Piano not yet invented.’

I glanced dubiously at my father, who gave an emphatic nod.

‘But piano absolutely instrument of imagination, and we can create anything on it. Clear organ here.’ She demonstrated a small prelude. ‘Remember always that Bach represents God in this world, with his wisdom, his acceptance, his forgiveness. Like he always bless you.’

‘I’ve already learnt that prelude,’ I told her, imagining it was possible to complete a piece. ‘I finished it with my old teacher.’

‘Bach is never finished. Life in this music endless.’ She took my finger and dived with it into the key; it plunged to the bottom with the precise weight of a ball bearing. ‘And here, very harpsichord touch. What Bach gives? Peace, of course, and bells.’

The evenness she demanded went well beyond the physical handicaps of a lazy fourth finger or attention-seeking thumb. It was an evenness of thought, a spiritual discipline. ‘We play with our ears,’ she reminded me. ‘Seeing ears, hearing eyes. Clever heart, warm brain.’

My hands, brown with the Australian sun, tripped across the keyboard beside hers, as pink and round as starfish. ‘Not,’ she said, as I guessed at a sound, and then she took my hand and guided my fingers to the right attack. Often I didn’t even register the precise spins she put on every sound; I was as tone-deaf to inflexion as a person speaking a foreign tongue. To me the keys of the piano were still on–off buttons, which could be played loud, or soft, or somewhere in between.

At home, I was not yet practising two hours a day, but I told my friends that I was. On one camping trip with our neighbours, around the fire, I gave a self-aggrandising account of my life as a junior concert pianist. As we drove home the following day, my brother and baby sister dozed beside me. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep too, so that I could listen to my parents speaking sotto voce in the front.

‘Lizzie thinks we’re pushing Anna,’ said my mother. ‘That she’s missing out on a childhood.’

‘That’s bullshit,’ said my father. ‘Did you tell her how much she enjoyed the piano?’

‘I told her about the little stories she makes up for her pieces. But Lizzie said that this only proved her point. That this was her way of getting the childhood she was missing out on. She said it was one of the most tragic things she had ever heard.’

I lay in the backseat and rehearsed this in my mind. Tragic. Me. Missing out on a childhood. The melodrama of it delighted me; a tear of the most exquisite self-pity formed in my eye and then rushed down my cheek. I let it dry on my skin. If I wiped it away, they would know I had been eavesdropping.

In fact my parents rarely pushed me to practise. ‘Practice makes perfect,’ my mother said occasionally. I was not sure that I believed her, but I took it on faith, like so much in childhood. Sometimes my father sat beside me when I practised; sometimes he sat behind me in the study and wrote poetry.

Usually, I was glad to play the piano. I was an uncoordinated child, and playing an instrument offered me purchase on the physical world: a small realm of possible mastery. Each night, my parents took me out the back for remedial ball skills.

‘Hands ready,’ my mother coached, as my father lobbed a soccer ball at me. It approached with the precision of a heat-seeking missile, its black and white hexagons swirling towards my face.

‘Catch!’ they cried out, in unison.

I always lost my nerve at the key moment.

‘You’ll never catch it if you don’t look at it,’ my mother repeated, running inside to fetch a flannel. I waited for my nose to stop bleeding, and then returned to the piano.

Every now and then I resented it, and Lizzie’s words echoed in my head. One Saturday morning, I rallied the neighbourhood children in a new business venture. We sifted the neighbours’ driveway, searching for pieces of gravel of the utmost beauty and rarity, which we painted in watercolours – sapphire, amethyst, ruby and emerald – and marketed to passers-by as ‘precious stones’. We had sold four bundles before lunch-time, including one to a stranger, clearing twelve cents in profit, when I had to return home to practise Bach. My father sat behind me in the study, typing a short story; behind him, three windows framed a Saturday sky. It was a sky that was blue with possibility: a sky that contained my missing childhood.

I slammed the piano lid shut: ‘I hate Bach.’ The words felt blasphemous in my mouth: I knew immediately that this was a much greater sin than hating Stevie Wonder.

At my piano lesson the following Tuesday, my father gave me a mischievous look and turned to Mrs Sivan. ‘Anna said she hated Bach.’

‘No, I didn’t!’

Mrs Sivan remained very calm. ‘Of course you did not. It is impossible. Bach chooses himself who he will like, and who he will not.’

At the end of the year, there was to be a concert in Elder Hall at the University of Adelaide.

‘We have excellent name,’ Mrs Sivan said. She collected English words like small coins, and her cache was overtaking mine. ‘A Spectrum of Piano Music.’

‘That is an excellent name,’ said my father.

‘You like, yes?’ She flushed with pleasure and turned to me. ‘The stage must be like another room in your house. When you step out there, you smile at your friends, you bow, you enjoy sharing your music. You feel like fish.’

‘A fish in water?’

‘Of course.’

At nine, I fancied myself a veteran of the stage because of my starring role as Fairy Queen in the Year 3 operetta. My mother had made my first diva frock, with a satin, sequinned bodice and tulle skirt. Armed with a cardboard wand coated in glitter, I had stepped out onto the stage and found myself at home. On the final night, as I delivered a bouquet of flowers to Mrs Vaughan at the piano, a smile seized control of my face and threatened to consume my head.

A Spectrum of Piano Music promised an equal glory. It was to be on 18 September; all other dates in the calendar now existed in relation to this one. In our lessons, we moved through the small preludes and the Anna Magdalena Notebook to the inventions and sinfonias. Mrs Sivan took me through each part repeatedly, considering the intention of each note, the attraction that bound it to its neighbours. It was not enough to play each part, to feel it in my hands: I had to sing it in my head, follow its contour, tell its story. Then, when I put the parts together, by a sudden miracle I could hear them all at once. It was as though I had three minds, or three sets of ears, operating in parallel. The first time this happened, I turned to her, astonished. My consciousness had expanded; I could feel air rushing into unused parts of my mind. ‘Exactly!’ she said. ‘Otherwise will be awful.’

As the concert drew nearer, my lessons became longer. After one lesson in the school holidays, I went to my best friend Sophia’s house for a sleepover.

‘What took you so long?’ she asked. ‘We’ve been waiting to watch Thriller!’

‘My first two-hour lesson,’ I explained smugly.

In our lessons, Mrs Sivan sat beside me at the piano, seizing my hand and correcting it, forming my fingers into shape, or playing alongside me two octaves above, the intensity of her sounds ringing in my ears: ‘Do you know how little is different? But huge, huge. This we call science in arts. The more you understand each little thing, the more you understand all.’

As I played, she talked or sang with the music. Sometimes, she asked me to move aside and played for me, but this was rare. ‘I don’t want you to copy, monkey-style.’

She explained the circle of fifths to me, piling fifths one above the other, always brightening, until we arrived back in the key where we had begun. I blinked, amazed: it was improbable as an Escher drawing. Then she unravelled us through perfect fourths, travelling backwards past G-flat major and C-flat major, with their great hoards of flats, returning to the daylight of C major. The mathematics of it delighted me.

‘Do you understand?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ I replied.

She turned to my father, beaming. ‘I have never met such an intelligent nine-year-old, who can understand at first telling the circle of fifths.’

At such moments, I walked out of her lessons sky-high, unassailable. At other moments, I felt smaller. When I was tiring, she would stop and address me urgently.

‘What is we need is to feed our spirit, constantly. And feeding ourselves with other people’s food is not great nutrition for our soul. Must digest. Look sometimes at people growing older, and wisdom coming inside. Start of what I call digested wisdom.’

In the early days, these speeches baffled me, and I sat there with eyes averted, trying to make myself as inconsequential as possible. When the great force of her conversation halted at a question mark, I ventured a tentative yes or no, searching her face for the right answer.

‘You are too intelligent a girl to guess,’ she reprimanded me once. ‘What comes after translation? Interpretation. First you must translate composer’s wishes exactly, and then you’re free to do interpretation, otherwise you automatically restricted.’

As she offered me this, I snuck a glance at the clock. Soon I would be back in the car with my father, tracing those dark streets back home to Nailsworth, where my mother would be preparing dinner. Then I could settle in to watching Diff’rent Strokes, and it would be another six days before my next lesson.

The dress rehearsal for A Spectrum of Piano Music was held on a sunny spring afternoon, but there was a hushed twilight in the imposing hall, with its dark wood and red plush seats. Mrs Sivan’s high-school students were scattered around the auditorium, exuding adolescent cool. I walked in holding my mother’s hand, and immediately regretted my lolly-pink overalls.

When it was my turn to play, I climbed up on the stage, grimaced at my mother’s enthusiastic applause and began a Bach sinfonia. I had rehearsed the opening many times with Mrs Sivan, until the small bells of its moto perpetuo had become second nature and my hearing automatically expanded to accommodate its three voices. But as I progressed to the second line, a worry intruded: What does the left hand do next? Imagine if I had a memory lapse in front of all these high-school students! The individual parts lost their focus, and the three dimensions of sound contracted back into one.

‘Not hearing!’ Mrs Sivan announced from the audience.

I stopped and started again.

‘Not!’ She called out an instruction which I couldn’t hear, so I kept playing.

‘Never just playing but hearing inside!’ she exclaimed, but my grandparents had said my sinfonia was excellent when I played it at Sunday lunch, so I continued.

‘We will work!’ she called out, and climbed up from the audience onto the stage. As she started talking to me again about depths, or about not sitting, or about breathing spaces, or about all the other things I was not doing, I felt overwhelmed and started to cry.

‘My darling, what is this?’ She wrapped her arm around me. ‘Always can be better, always growing. You must not cry, except for good tears, when you are so moved by the music.’

Against my will, my bad tears continued. I was so humiliated to be crying in front of high-school students that I started heaving with sobs. My mother stepped up to the stage.

‘I think I might take her outside for some fresh air.’

‘Of course,’ said Mrs Sivan. ‘Enjoy beautiful day, and then we continue.’

My mother took my hand and walked me down the aisle, past the staring high-school students, into the spring day outside.

‘I don’t understand,’ I wailed, my shameful secret now public.

She held me to her and rocked me in her arms. ‘Don’t be a goofy goat,’ she said, as the afternoon sun beat down on us, and my pink overalls dug into my crotch, and the oblivious adult world continued around us.

 

When we returned to the hall, Mrs Sivan put her arm around me and led me back to the stage and pulled up a chair so that we could work.

‘My darling, life in music always learning, always growing. What is the difference between good and great musician?’

I knew the answer by now, even if I did not yet understand it.

‘Little bits,’ I said.

‘Exactly!’ she replied, delighted. ‘Little bit more hearing, little bit more freedom.’

She had to tell me everything. She had to fit out this alternative universe for me, item by item, word by word, sound by sound. It is never enough to tell a student something once: teaching is constant repetition, constant correction. She repeated her lessons and anecdotes as a musician performs repertoire: each time reinterpreted, and so made new.

On the stage of Elder Hall she again took me through the breathing spaces and conducting lines of this sinfonia. I played with a heavy-handed punctuation, inking every musical sentence with an emphatic full-stop. ‘Do not sit,’ she reminded me. ‘Bach never stops.’ In Bach, every ending is also a beginning. Over time I came to understand the quiet that lies at the heart of his moto perpetuo.

She held a lot back in those early years, but gave the maximum I could take, and a little more. Gradually, I came to know more of her ideas by heart. By the time I properly understood them, they were absorbed into my body, and I could no longer tell where her ideas began and mine left off.

‘This is good,’ she said to me later, ‘this means this knowledge has come to you. It is intuition.’ She grinned at this sparkling new word. ‘In-tuition. It means tuition that has come inside.’

 

On Friday night at the concert, there were three chairs lined up in the green room. One of Mrs Sivan’s adult students, Debra Andreacchio, supervised the performers backstage, ushering us from one chair to the next, each time closer to the stage. Sitting in the third chair, I imagined what it would feel like to be sitting in the first chair, and then I was in it, and now I was onstage, trying to remember to smile at my friends and bow and enjoy sharing my music – and then it was over. It was easier than the rehearsal, and nobody had stopped me. Through the transformative ritual of a performance, Elder Hall had become somewhere warm, somewhere victorious.

At interval, Mrs Sivan gave me a fragrant embrace, and I joined my parents and grandparents in the audience for the second half. As the last performer left the stage, my grandfather leant forward in his chair.

‘It would appear that nobody has prepared a speech,’ he observed, and strode purposefully down to the front.

‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. On one of my inspections of the Woodville High Special Music Centre, I was fortunate to hear Mrs Sivan’s remarkable teaching, and I drew the conclusion immediately that she was an out-of-the-ordinary teacher of the piano. I feel that after tonight’s wonderful treat these initial impressions have been truly vindicated.’

My father winked at my mother; my own triumph burnt quietly inside me. The rhythm of my adult life had begun.

 

PIANO LESSONS. Copyright © 2009 by Anna Goldsworthy. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.