In reading Piano Lessons, the memoir of award-winning classical pianist Anna Goldsworthy, I discovered a few harsh truths about myself. One, I have a dislike of reading about those who succeed; and two, I have a dislike of those who through no fault of their own are related to other people who I dislike. Anna, alas, suffers from both of these maladies. Due to hard work, often at the expense of those around her, she has become a brilliant musician; due to genetics, she is the daughter of Peter Goldsworthy, writer of great repute and recipient of one of my patented Longstanding Grudges of now mostly forgotten foundations. Peter, author of Maestro, a book based loosely on Anna’s own piano lessons and studied by me for high school English, came to our library to give a talk halfway through the year. I was thrilled: a real live author, in my school grounds, ready to impart wisdom! He cracked jokes and was fairly affable, but all I can really recall is that he talked about his other books, and mentioned Wish, saying, “It’s a story about a monkey...who learns sign language,” with a faux-embarrassed laugh. I promptly checked it out of the library and rushed home, only to discover that perhaps he could have mentioned that the sign language aspect is mostly pushed aside by the rather more alarming bestiality aspect of the plot. I felt betrayed and a little horrified, was sick of Maestro and the pick-up line “peel me a grape” (which to this day I really cannot understand), and therefore put Peter Goldsworthy on my grudge list. Then, ten or so years later, I picked up Piano Lessons and was enjoying it until I connected the two, then felt bad because of it. And deservedly so.
The book begins when Anna is nine, having just received an A in her First Grade piano exam and in need of a new teacher. Her determined grandfather finds one for her: Mrs Sivan, formerly of the Leningrad Conservatorium of Music, part of the Liszt list, and full of musical wisdom. We then follow Anna through the next ten or so years of her life, as the endearing Mrs Sivan guides her through wins and losses, insults and praise, humility and expanding ego. It is a credit to Anna that she can look back on her life so honestly; sometimes her younger self could be fairly insufferable, smug and full of entitlement. Despite this, she is never a truly unlikeable character. Hell, everyone’s a brat as a kid, obviously apart from myself. And discord in her life—when Mrs Sivan declares Anna will never be a concert pianist; when she realises her father is writing her beloved teacher into a book; the performance where she believes the audience are mocking her—make your heart ache for her. High school is not a glorious time for Anna socially, despite winning a scholarship to go to the same school as her beloved best friend Sophia. Intelligent and otherwise occupied, she is considered an outcast, and the two of them grow apart. Anna finds a hero in older pianist Kate Stevens, and looks to other musicians, finding closer bonds with them, as she grows up and changes her approaches to music, practise, and life.
One thing that often bothers me about non-fiction is that it’s, well, real. Anna does not really suffer through any catastrophic events; really, her only enemy is herself, and can be easily defeated. Dux of her high school with a perfect graduating score, along with winner of the Don Maynard Prize for best music student and the Tennyson Prize; winner of 1990 Adelaide Eisteddfod Yamaha Medallion for Most Promising Pianist, amongst more others than I could find again in the book’s pages; also, she is beautiful. Her parents are doctors and writers, her childhood home big enough for a grand piano, her family there with love and support. Apart from an almost comedic run of bad luck with cars, no external forces can stop her. Much like the movie Ponyo, there was just not enough conflict for me in this book, and a horrible, nasty part of me, begrudges so much luck for one single person, no matter that she worked hard for much of her success. Look, my own memoir would be much the same. Life’s hasn’t always buttercups and kittens, but I’ve never had to suffer through war, or extreme poverty, or my parents refusing to let me see Chris because he was a Montague and I was a Capulet. In the same vein, Anna never had to practise the piano on a piece of butcher’s paper with the keys drawn on in texta, or fight her family to let her play.
Still, it’s a lovely book, beautifully written, and not too overwhelming for those, like me, who know absolutely nothing about classical music apart from the movie Amadeus and Telstra’s call waiting music. I have a new appreciation for those, like my flautist friend Kate, who make playing music their lives, and how much dedication they must put in to achieve the life they want.
By the end, I was not more enamoured with her father. Sure, he looks after her, calls her Pie (my father has no such nicknames for me, which I am fine with), but this one line just triggered my whole grudge all over again: “Now that I had my driver’s licence, my father no longer accompanied me to lessons. Mrs Sivan asked after him, a little wistfully, but he was writing a novel about bestiality and had moved on to new obsessions.” AUGH.