Piano Lessons, discusses music and writing.
Over your life, you have excelled in so many different areas. What drew you to the piano first and foremost?
As a young child I was obsessed by Young Talent Time, so that’s what inspired me to begin piano lessons. Later, the piano came to mean more to me: it provided me with a faith, an identity. It also challenged me more than anything else in my life.
What is the greatest lesson that your mentor and teacher, Mrs Sivan, ever taught you?
Humility. There’s a humility in living alongside these great composers, and there’s a humility going to a teacher each week to have your playing (and your character) deconstructed. ‘I don’t give compliments,’ she always reminded me, ‘my compliment is to sit and work.’
In the book, you talk about piano practice becoming a physical need for you, without which you felt fidgety and unmoored. Do you still feel like this, and how does playing the piano fit into your life today?
Practice is still an important part of my life. There’s a saying I sometimes torment myself with: ‘if you haven’t practised for one day, you know it; if you haven’t practised for two days, the critics know it; if you haven’t practised for three days, everyone knows it’. It’s a dishonest musician who tries to get by on work they’ve done in the past. Having said that, maintain a practice regimen is not as easy as it once was: a baby eats your practice.
Early in the book, Mrs. Sivan says ‘Anna will never be a concert pianist’. How did this comment impact on you?
At the time I was devastated – I don’t think anyone had ever previously told me that a path was not open to me. Childhood is this charmed place of endless possibility, before you’ve made the decisions that shape your life. But once I recovered from the insult, I saw it as a throwing down of the gauntlet, as an assertion I had to disprove. Now I wonder whether it was in fact an ingenious piece of reverse psychology…
What advice would you give someone dreaming of becoming a concert pianist?
There are easier ways to fame and fortune. Don’t do it unless you have to – and then don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Has writing always been a calling for you, or is it something you have found yourself doing unexpectedly?
When I was thirteen, I spent a week at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival with my father, and felt a sudden certainty that this is what I wanted to do with my life. And immediately afterwards, a devastating guilt about my piano, waiting for me at home like a faithful spouse. This was a dilemma that tormented me for years, until I finally decided I had to both play and write.
Can you draw any parallels between the process of writing and the process of making music?
Although one is an interpretative art and the other a creative art, the processes are similar. Each is an art that unfolds in time, in which you have to keep an eye on both the big picture and the detail: on structure and pace, but also on the finer details of rhythm, of cadence, of phrasing. In Mrs Sivan’s words, ‘you see every little tree and enjoying, but always you remember big forest.’
How do you fit writing into your busy life?
Each morning I write several pages of long-hand, and after a few pages of drivel, I might arrive at a sensible thought. Then I fit the writing into spare parts of the day as I find them: on planes, in dressing rooms, while my baby sleeps.
Do you have any tips for aspiring memoir writers?
I think the critical thing with any writing project is just to start, and then to continue. And with a memoir, it’s probably important not to censor yourself too much in the first draft.
What was the most interesting or unexpected thing about the process of publishing the book?
One of the most touching things has been people telling me how much they have been affected by Mrs Sivan, and inspired by her teachings.
I was shown a few potential covers, none of which seemed quite right. After I submitted a number of childhood photos to the designer, Tom Deverall, he came up with this one. I thought it was perfect – elegant but also warm and personal.
How did you feel to receive endorsements for the book from Helen Garner and Alice Pung?
Thrilled and honoured. Helen Garner has been an idol of mine for years – I’ve always found her the most disarming of writers – and I was captivated by Alice Pung’s candid memoir, Unpolished Gem, when it came out a few years ago.
What are the books and writers that inspired you during the writing of Piano Lessons?
Both of the women mentioned above. I have also imbibed the writing of my father, Peter Goldsworthy, since childhood, and doubtless traces remain in my prose – perhaps most conspicuously when I write against his influence. After I completed the first draft of this book, I was mortified by my how much I had dwelt on failure and wanted to bring more wonder and joy into the story. I thought of Li Cunxin’s Mao’s Last Dancer – not because I felt nourished by its sentences, but because I was so moved by its climactic moment, and sought this visceral response. And at the risk of sounding grandiose, Proust is my literary hero, because he can do everything (or everything that counts): psychology, poetry, comedy, philosophy, inner worlds, outer worlds, painstaking excavations of consciousness... Whenever I struggled to articulate musical experience and considered taking the easy option, I felt chastened by his example.