Piano Lessons: A Memoir

Piano Lessons: A Memoir

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by Anna Goldsworthy

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Anna Goldsworthy was nine years old when she met Eleanora Sivan, the charismatic Russian émigré and world-class pianist who became her piano teacher. Piano Lessons is the story of what Mrs. Sivan brought to Anna's lessons: a love of music, a respect for life, a generous spirit, and the courage to embrace a musical life.
Beautifully written and


Anna Goldsworthy was nine years old when she met Eleanora Sivan, the charismatic Russian émigré and world-class pianist who became her piano teacher. Piano Lessons is the story of what Mrs. Sivan brought to Anna's lessons: a love of music, a respect for life, a generous spirit, and the courage to embrace a musical life.
Beautifully written and strikingly honest, Piano Lessons takes the reader on a journey into the heart and meaning of music. As Anna discovers passion and ambition, confronts doubt and disappointment, and learns about much more than tone and technique, Mrs. Sivan's wisdom guides her:
"We are not teaching piano playing. We are teaching philosophy and life and music digested." "What is intuition? Knowledge that has come inside."
"My darling, we must sit and work."
Piano Lessons reminds us all how an extraordinary teacher can change a life completely. A work that will appeal to all music lovers and anyone who has ever taken a music lesson, Piano Lessons will also touch the heart of anyone who has ever loved a teacher.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Australian pianist Goldsworthy was nine years old when she began instruction with the renowned Russian pianist Eleonora Sivan, now relocated to Adelaide. Their pupil-master relationship grew and deepened over the next decade, rendered here in serene, clear, elegant prose, as Goldsworthy, the child of two doctors and musicians, blossomed into a stunning stage force and a vessel of Sivan's deeply intuitive music instruction. Over her meticulous stages of instruction, Sivan took on each composer in turn--Bach was like God, she noted, offering "peace, of course, and bells," while Mozart was like Midas, "every sound he touches turns into song"--and Goldsworthy tidily arranges her memoir according to their embarking on these composers' works, from Shostakovich to Liszt. At first Sivan did not believe that Goldsworthy had the "emotional freedom" to be a concert pianist. However, the youth proved her wrong by incorporating her teacher's radiant artistry and coming to feel the joy of playing. Moreover, after earning top prizes and attaining her dream of playing a Beethoven concerto with a full orchestra, Goldsworthy returned the gift of music by teaching, as per Sivan's ministrations, and composing to her teacher this rich, heartfelt tribute. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

“I have never read a better depiction of a great mentor and of how true learning takes place. Every teacher of anything should read this book. Twice.” —Philip Levine, Poet Laureate of the United States, for TheMillions.com

“Deeply felt and elegantly written---like a melody by Mozart: joyous and heartbreaking in a single exquisite line. Anna Goldsworthy has written a loving, generous homage, not only to music, but far more to the magical, inexhaustible arts of teaching and learning. She allows us into the intimate, demanding relationship between teacher and student, and shows how skill and insight pass invisibly from one to the other, becoming understanding, freedom, and finally wisdom. Goldsworthy conveys the process of development, from beginner to artist, with a light touch, beautifully capturing her schoolgirl's doubts and dreams. But at the heart of the story is always Mrs. Sivan, her teacher, speaking broken English, giving herself uncompromisingly to the belief that music is a way of living, of breathing, of acceptance. In her passionate, poignant portrait of Mrs. Sivan, Goldsworthy demonstrates how fully she has learned those lessons. It is a book of great warmth, sensitivity, and love. ” —Glenn Kurtz, author of Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music

“Anna Goldsworthy has let us in on her arduous journey to become a concert pianist with flair and refreshing honesty. The other star in this book, her piano teacher Eleanora Sivan, is a woman who despite her fractured English (or perhaps because of it?) is somehow able to express the deepest truths about music and musicians. I found Piano Lessons hard to put down.” —Arnold Steinhardt, author of Violin Dreams and first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet

“A remarkably clear-sighted account of how music changes everything and nothing. Mrs. Sivan's piano lessons are invaluable and unsentimental lessons in life.” —Lavinia Greenlaw, author of The Importance of Music to Girls

“The wise words connect with anyone who can remember the pangs of adolescence, and the joy of being taken under the wing of a generous mentor.” —John Terauds, The Toronto Star

Library Journal - BookSmack!
What I'm Telling My Friends: If you speak the-to me-foreign language of classical music, you will get more out of this than I did. You'll also be left wishing that Sivan had written her own story. How she got from Russia to Australia, and why she gave up performance for teaching: I'm waiting for that book. Therese Purcell Nielsen, "Memoir Short Takes," Booksmack! 10/7/10
Kirkus Reviews

A privileged Australian classical pianist chronicles her love of music and the delicate student-teacher dynamic that honed her craft.

Growing up in Adelaide in the 1970s, Goldsworthy began studying piano at age six, taking lessons from a jazz musician. Three years later, her grandfather enlisted the assistance of Eleonora Sivan, a distinguished Russian instructor formerly with the Leningrad Conservatorium of Music. Initially perceiving piano pieces as "obstacle courses for fingers, in which the object was getting through to the end, largely unscathed," the author found Sivan's demand that she practice two hours per day a daunting task. Goldsworthy's first dream was to be a singer, but Sivan proved to be a pedagogue whose intensive musical knowledge and sage (often overbearing) instruction, imparted via broken English, successfully nurtured and matured her. Being receptive to the intellectual depth of Bach as well as to Mozart's simplicity, the author's burgeoning musical talent developed swiftly from intensive lessons and musical theory to adjudicatory examinations at conservatoriums, while her parents, both prominent doctors, beamed with pride. As an adolescent, the author admits to becoming flummoxed by the life choices presented to her—e.g., would peers consider her a "square" for being smart and playing piano?—and eschewed boys in favor of music ("Boyfriends. Who needed such trifles? I had the piano as my lover"). Awards, recitals and an air of self-congratulatory bliss dominate the third section of the memoir as she, at age 18, glows in the company of awestruck professional musicians. Consistently guided by Sivan's tutelage, the author ascended further still, though car accidents and a melodic misfire or two threatened to derail her fame. Goldsworthy often takes time out of her own story to mention her father and his accomplishments as a published author and doctor. However, the author's overabundance of self-love and melodrama often stifles the narrative, as when, after a performance blunder at the Sydney Opera House she "climbed the steps to the top of the opera house, where I assumed a tragic, windswept pose."

More silver spoon than strife in this indulgent memoir.

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Piano Lessons

A Memoir

By Anna Goldsworthy

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2009 Anna Goldsworthy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4929-3



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.


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?'


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.


Excerpted from Piano Lessons by Anna Goldsworthy. Copyright © 2009 Anna Goldsworthy. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

ANNA GOLDSWORTHY is an award-winning pianist who travels and performs internationally as a soloist and chamber musician. Her debut solo CD, "Come With Us," was recently released by ABC Classics. Her writing has appeared in The Monthly and Best Australian Essays, among others.

Anna Goldsworthy is an award-winning pianist who travels and performs internationally as a soloist and chamber musician. Her debut solo CD, Come With Us, was released by ABC Classics. Her writing has appeared in The Monthly and Best Australian Essays, among others.

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Piano Lessons 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! I think if you love music, piano, or judt want a quick entertaining read, this is your book. This book is my favorit book! Everyone should read it, espevially if you take piano lessons or teach piano. From, A
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
GabinaFS More than 1 year ago
Piano Lessons Author: Anna Goldsworthy Reviewed By Fran Lewis Memoirs are really quite unique as they reflect the inner most thoughts of the person writing them as they create a world for the reader comprised of their most memorable moments, important events and their passions shared. Anna Goldsworthy’s world at an early age was her love of the piano, music and pleasing her family. Striving for acceptance and hoping that she would be the best at a young age she dedicated her life to the piano, the music and becoming one in the same with her keyboard. Playing the piano and feeling the emotions evoked by the composition, the message that the composer is relating to the pianist and interpreting and presenting it listeners requires more than just a basic understanding of the piano, the composition and the composer. Eleonora Sivan was the woman who would change her world, open up her eyes and teach her to become the concert pianist and artist she is today. Sit back, close your eyes, and listen to the sounds, as music Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and many others will fill the pages of this outstanding memoir we can hear the concertos, the sonatas and the sympathies as we learn what how one young woman strives for success from the beginning. Auditioning for Mrs. Sivan with her Mozart Sonata the first movement, she hopes to not only make a positive impression but also make her grandfather and mother proud. Little does she learn until later that her performance was not quite up to par and the teacher felt a definite need to help this student whose skills were definitely as she states, “ ill equipped.” Eleanora Sivan required more than just sitting at the piano when a student was taking a lesson or playing during a concert. Anna Goldsworthy, although only 9 when she began her lessons with Sivan, entered the same world as adults, high school students and Mrs. Sivan to become a concert pianist, child prodigy of the magnitude required not only by others but for herself as well. Anna’s journey began with five minutes of practice required by her former instructor whose standards did not mark those of Mrs. Sivan. Increased to 2 hours of practice daily as a more realistic regime for a serious music student, would she rise to what was expected of her? The memoir related her personal musical journey to reach the heights needed when studying under such a devoted and dedicated teacher. It is truly a testament to herself and to Mrs. Sivan. They story is centered in Australia from her first meeting with Mrs. Sivan to her enlightenment when taking her first lesson. Eye opening, illuminating and definitely at times deflating for Anna. As Sivan explains the first steps required before placing her fingers on the notes or even beginning to play. Sivan explains, “The fingers are the orchestra musicians.” Anna needed to learn how to sit, finger, position and place her hands before beginning. “ You are playing not listening, you have to hear a sound- hearing the sound creates our imagination and then relax.” Understanding the sound, strong fingers the hands speak as Sivan explains. The breakthrough came when she was asked to create a story for Mozart’s second movement in one of his Sonata’s. Sivan had a difficult childhood and by having her students create a story within the music she hoped to regain much or some of what she lost when growing up. Each chapter the author introduces the reader to a different composer and artist. In each chapter we learn
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