Anna Goldsworthy’s life lessons

About to perform with Niki Vasilakis, as part of the Festival Centre’s Cocktail Concerts series, writer and musician Anna Goldsworthy talks to Graham Strahle about the stage adaptation of her book Piano Lessons.

About to perform with Niki Vasilakis, as part of the Festival Centre’s Cocktail Concerts series, writer and musician Anna Goldsworthy talks to Graham Strahle about the stage adaptation of her book Piano Lessons. The anxieties that go through the mind of a concert pianist can be an excruciating thing. Not only can the performance fall apart due to frozen fingers and lapses of memory, but it is made worse by numerous pairs of ears and eyes in the audience bearing witness to the unfolding spectacle. Theatre of pain, one might call it, and it plays out with telling effect in Anna Goldsworthy’s stage adaptation of her book, Piano Lessons. A pianist falters and that awful moment arrives when self-doubt wrecks a performance. The pianist is Goldsworthy herself. “I break down in a concerto,” she says. “I narrate over my playing as I try to deal with my anxiety and what’s happening, as little voices are going on in my head.” The show Piano Lessons began when Deborah Conway, director of the Queensland Music Festival, suggested Goldsworthy turn her much-admired memoir into a stage play. “It is great now to be able to include the music itself,” she explains, adding that a lot of her book, and now the play, relates to performance anxiety and coping with the scourges of failure and jealousy. The play brings into theatrical form her reminiscences as a budding pianist under the tutelage of renowned Russian teacher, Eleonora Sivan, who to this day continues to privately teach piano in the quiet suburbs of Adelaide. “Ultimately they were lessons of life,” says Goldsworthy, “and one was about failure and how that relates to anyone who is trying to set themselves up in a career. It’s learning how to recover from failure, and equally learning how to deal with success. Eleonora would tell me: ‘Don’t be like one of those who holds their nose high in the air when they’re off the stage but who cries like a baby when they’re on the stage’.” Starting at age nine, Goldsworthy says that what she received from Sivan was, not least of all, “an emotional education”. “I was in many ways your typical reticent Anglo-Saxon person. She always challenged that in me, and it has flowed over to my writing – not to be scared of sensitivity or of giving away of oneself. “Another lesson was how jealousy is a killer. One sees people in the arts completely absorbed by jealousy. It’s one thing to be spreading the word about this great tradition [of classical music], but the arts are not about being me, me, me. A large part is trying to be generous in order to play this music. She would often talk about the nature of ambition and say: ‘Rather than asking how I can build a career in music, what can I bring to it?’ She has a real sense of music being something we need as a society, something to be immersed in but also how we can be enlarged and ennobled by it.” Helen Howard – the only other actor in the show – plays the part of Sivan, literally taking the young Goldsworthy through a series of lessons. Chopin’s music figures prominently – he’s “a master of sonority and creating texture between the hands”, adds Goldsworthy. Turning the book to a stage play required crafting more exterior drama, explains Goldsworthy. Dramaturg Michael Futcher helped her with the process. “I alternately go from narrator to stepping back into myself. We’ve had two seasons so far with two directors, and because I’ve never acted before, it’s interesting how each has been telling me how to be more like Anna Goldsworthy. It is quite disorienting to be told how to be oneself. “In being that nine year-old again, an adult part of me is there, watching on. I have to believe I am that person at that time. You have to have the broad picture plus be in the moment. But this resonates with playing the piano – first of all it’s coming to grips with the meaning of a piece, and then there’s the extra performative aspect of projecting that meaning. You have to have a cool brain and a warm heart at the same time. Both have to be in balance. “Sometimes I stop and think, what am I doing here on stage – it seems an unbelievably egotistical thing to be doing. But as Eleonora says, performance is an act of giving of oneself. Playing the piano is not just moving the fingers. Of interest is who you are as a person. That’s what we bring: our human experiences.” Sibling Rivalry Cocktail Concert with Niki Vasilakis and Anna Goldsworthy Thursday, January 15 Lyrics, Adelaide Festival Centre Piano Lessons Adelaide Cabaret Festival Saturday, June 6 to Monday, June 8

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