On Music and Discipline: Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano Lessons

by Thomas Brett

Anna Goldsworthy’s memoir Piano Lessons (2010) is a coming of age story about a girl growing up and learning to play the piano in Australia.  From age nine to her late teens, Goldsworthy’s teacher was Russian émigré and master pianist Eleonora Sivan.  Over the years, Sivan guides her pupil through increasingly advanced piano technique and the great keyboard literature of Chopin, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Shostakovitch and others.  Along the way, the teacher imparts a sense of the dedication, care, attention to detail, and commitment required to become a professional concert pianist.

Much of Piano Lessons captures the spoken details of Sivan’s teaching in dozens of clearly remembered passages of music talk from Goldsworthy’s music lessons.  (The author was no doubt helped here by the fact that her father, the novelist and poet Peter Goldsworthy, attended many of her piano lessons and kept verbatim notes on Sivan’s teachings for eventual use in his 2004 book, Maestro.)  In one memorable passage, Sivan reminds Goldsworthy that “music is logically organized fantasy” and she must strive to develop her “emotional logic” (40) in order to project her “inner emotional story” (42) through her piano playing.  Goldsworthy does a fine job chronicling and rendering the ups and downs of her journey into classical piano playing and ends her book having succeeded in making her debut as a concert soloist performing with an Australian symphony orchestra.  As a narrative, Piano Lessons is an airtight story, unpacking for the reader how a musical life–a life devoted to music making–is built methodically, one piano composition at a time, one hour of practice after another, one music competition award begetting the next.  But the book also documents a musical life that seems uptight too, and in this regard is perhaps representative of a what it feels like to be professional concert musician–no matter what one’s instrument.

As I read Piano Lessons I found myself thinking about the relationship between musical discipline and mind-body well-being, health and even stress.  What is the (proper) role of discipline in a musical life?  Is it the only route to mastery and/or “success” or are there alternative routes?  And are the structures and performance conventions of western classical music–including the stress on being faithful to a score and playing its notes “perfectly”, and the whole notion of “virtuosity” that every musician in his or her own way strives towards–somehow detrimental to a musician’s health?  As I read Piano Lessons, I wondered: classical music can be great to listen to.  But is it good for you to play it?

My earliest musical experiences were outside of the classical music world and didn’t involve music teachers, but were rather long sessions of musical imitation in the oral tradition: air drumming along with rock music played on headphones.  With drum lessons through my teens, however, I was working on notated snare drum studies, trying to get every note right, striving for increasing my sense of control over my hands and sticks.  By college, I had adopted the music conservatory ethos of everyone around me: hole yourself up in a practice room and practice for hours on end, seven days a week.  I was under no illusions about ever becoming a virtuoso or a soloist; I just wanted to learn and memorize the material assigned for my lessons.  But all that practising did lead me to increased motor skills, muscle memory, and body control, as well as competence to make a “musical” sound.  I practised to lessen performance anxiety, I practiced to internalize the music and make it come “naturally”, and I practiced to push my body and mind to go beyond themselves and transcend the here and now, even without achieving what Goldsworthy describes as “the rapture of virtuosity, of physical mastery” (114).

And while all I did was practice for four years, I never gave it much thought as a kind of social-cultural practice.  Moreover, in my world music and ethnomusicology classes, it never occurred to me to think about practising, discipline and virtuosity in the context of other musical traditions, probably because the musicians from these distant lands just seemed–as if by magic–really, really good at what they do.  Since I’ve broached the topic: Does a master drummer in Ghana or a ney player in Turkey ever practice alone, drilling musical exercises away from their group music making milieus of rehearsing and performance?  Or is solitary practice a western musical preoccupation?

There are, however, some legendary stories about music practising in non-western musical contexts–especially in elite, classical music traditions. For example, the North Indian music tradition is full of stories of musicians practising alone hour upon hour each day.  In his book My Music, My Life, sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar recounts practising for up to sixteen hours a day when he was a teenager, his long hair tied to the ceiling to jolt him awake lest he doze off from fatigue. And Indian tabla drummers have been known to repeat finger drumstrokes many thousands of times per day–even while watching television!–to gain complete fluidity with their instrument.   Doubtless there are many other examples like this too.

But the above examples notwithstanding, the reader of Piano Lessons might keep in mind that most of our world’s musicians don’t read a note of music, nor do they spend most of their time practicing alone, motivated by the goals of control, emotional expression, and virtuosity.  And this is precisely why Goldsworthy’s book is such a valuable case study on the inner life and consciousness of the monolithic force of European classical music.