Anna Goldsworthy‘s memoir, Piano Lessons, came out in 2009. It quickly received a slew of praise and prizes for its eloquent prose and finely drawn characters. In 2012 Goldsworthy, in collaboration with dramaturg Michael Futcher and actor/writer Helen Howard adapted the novel for the stage. In 2017 Piano Lessons makes a welcome return to Sydney.
Piano Lessons isn’t quite a play, nor is it quite a recital. When Goldsworthy plays the piano it often begins as a scene from the story, an illustration of how the indomitable Mrs Sivan wishes a piece to sound, or a demonstration of some technical or emotional speed bump.
The music, however, is not just there to tell the story. At other times the music takes over, so that it is not beginner-student-Anna playing, or nervous-Eisteddfodd-competitor-Anna: it is just music, pure music, which has shaken off the snags of personality and nostalgia to become a piece of, well, art. It’s then that we realise how good a pianist Goldsworthy is: not just the glittering cascades of notes in suddenly effortless Chopin, Liszt and Katchachurian, but also a Bach fugue with all its internal logic laid out for us to hear, Beethoven on the edge, Schubert glowing. It’s at this point that one makes a mental note to go and hear her perform some music without the words sometime.
Goldsworthy is a remarkable musical actor. She plays a 9-year-old’s version of Mozart’s Sonata in C (K 545), complete with owlish pauses to put together the cadence correctly, and a gallop across the easy bit at the end, and anyone in the who audience who has every played that piece — which is pretty much every piano student, ever — immediately recognises the stumbling gait of a beginner. She launches into a Bach three-part invention, only to be stopped by Mrs Sivan. She listens, thinks, responds. It’s like watching someone learn, before your eyes. Which is precisely what it’s meant to be.
It’s also a memoir, inevitably shot through with nostalgia. Goldsworthy-the-playmaker knows full well that music and nostalgia are keen co-conspirators, and uses to great effect. It’s not just the smile that comes to my face as I hear her play Mozart, badly. It’s hearing all those ‘first in the book’ pieces which have, for generations, served to introduce budding musicians to the Great Masters, illustrating Mrs Sivan’s own word-pictures, extravagant and intimate, introducing each composer like an old friend.
Goldsworthy and her foil, Helen Howard, who plays Mrs Sivan (and every other voice, including Pere Goldsworthy), are a delicious double act. Howard drops Mrs Sivan’s imperious “NOT” (as she stops the young student in her tracks) with deft comic timing, and brings a delicacy as fine as a well-phrased melody to the aging piano teacher’s ego, injured by a thoughtless slight from her favourite pupil.
Meanwhile, Goldsworthy lets us in to her head as an enthusiastic 9 year old, as a gawky adolescent, as a young woman. She tells with painful clarity the bildungsroman of an aspiring musician: realising how much work lies ahead; the compulsive nature of practise; the strange, almost co-dependent relationship which develops between you and your art; the way it informs, transforms and sometimes overwhelms your identity. And she does so with a gentle, self-deprecating humour which quickly pricks any bubble of grandiosity which dares to form.
It’s almost a relief to discover that Goldsworthy is a better writer and a better musician than she is an actress — it would be overwhelming if she was that good at everything. But, in spite of Mrs Sivan’s enlightening and often hilarious commentary, Goldsworthy’s open-hearted honesty, combined with her musical chops, carry the performance.
Piano Lessons the book is published by Black Inc. (in Australia) and Pan Macmillan in the US and is available on Amazon, Kindle, and all those booky places. Anna Goldsworthy’s next performance is a solo recital at the Janet Clarke Hall at the University of Melbourne on November 18.