When I was in grade one, Mum decided it was time for me to get musical. So, despite having no natural inclination, she packed me off to Mrs Gregovich’s (AKA Mrs G, to those of us who had trouble grasping her exotic name) piano class.
The weekly lessons were conducted in a far-flung corner of my country primary school in a small stuffy room I suspect was actually the broom closet. In this room, I learnt to play classic numbers such as C,D,E and C,B,A, moving slowly on to more sophisticated pieces like one-handed ‘Chopsticks’.
After an initial burst of enthusiasm, in which I imagined I was destined for great things, my fervor for the piano cooled and soon Mum was pestering me relentlessly to practice. But who has time for piano, when Lucy Robinson’s pet terrier, Basil, is drowning on Neighbours that night. Before long, Mrs G was calling me scatterbrained and I was secretly pondering ways to paralyse my own fingers. Needless to say, my piano career was anything but stellar.
But that doesn’t mean I’ve completely given up my notions of grandeur. You see, I’ve decided to write a novel—my third. And it’s not just any novel, but one featuring a concert pianist. To be on the safe side, I haven’t made the pianist my point-of-view character. Instead her small daughter, Gracie, is telling the story, and luckily for me she hasn’t got a musical bone in her body either. Despite this, she needs to be able to describe her mother’s playing and should have a basic knowledge of musical terms and composers … all of which has led me to my current research and reading material.
Sitting dumbly beside Mrs G in that hot, stuffy broom room, I certainly didn’t picture myself pouring over YouTube clips (there was no Internet then anyway … imagine that!) or books about the piano. But here I am, thirty years later, doing just that. And to my utter surprise, it is fascinating.
Some nights I while hours away online, observing how fingers dance across keys or how emotions cloud pianists’ faces as they play. I examine body language, facial expressions, hand movements, costumes and hair, and wonder endlessly why these pianists are generally so good-looking. It’s spellbinding!
The piano plays a central role in my new novel. It is a complex character that divides as well as unifies those around it. As I write, I imagine how Gracie might approach the piano, considering this. I picture a tentative touch laced with a longing to sit down in front of it. I turn to books for inspiration.
Reading about the piano proves even more fruitful than watching YouTube. I note how other authors address the instrument in their work, how their characters interact physically and emotionally with it. I experience the force at which these characters press the keys and read the thoughts running through their heads as they do so.
In her memoir, Piano Lessons, concert pianist, Anna Goldsworthy, recalls her musical awakening. Unlike moi, Goldsworthy was a musically gifted child and describes in wonderful detail her journey to international stardom. Goldsworthy demonstrates how technique and music can be brought to life through words. Playing Shostakovich’s ‘Lyrical Waltz’ at a concert, Goldworthy imagines her teacher, Mrs Siven, instructing her: ‘This C in left hand wants to go to F, yes? To visit his friend. And now comes beautiful melody, queen absolutely, and here this G sharp must be fully alert!’
I was also recommended Piano Stories by Uruguayan author and pianist, Felisberto Hernandez. Hernandez played music in silent movie theatres as a kid and is said to have influenced writers, Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar and Italo Calvino. The book is a collection of fifteen short stories often told from a male piano player’s POV. I haven’t read all of these but have dipped in and out of them instead; fascinated by Hernandez’s habit of giving inanimate objects life. In ‘The Stray Horse’ he writes that a red pencil is, ‘like a piglet suckling in quick, short bursts, it would cling hungrily to the white of the page, leaving little sharp footprints with its short black hoof and merrily wagging its long red tail.’ Hernandez’s unconventional descriptions help me consider new perspectives when defining my own piano.
Zoe Morrison’ s Music and Freedom and Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music have proved to be research gold also. And, I’m always on the lookout for more …
As I read, I like to think that Mrs G would be pleased to know that, although I never became the concert pianist I aspired to, the piano is once again a presence in my life and, more importantly, I can now play chopsticks with two hands instead of just the one.
Emily Brewin is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and secondary school teacher. Hello, Goodbye is her first novel. Her second is due for release with Allen & Unwin in July 2018. She has been awarded an Australian Society of Authors Emerging Writers’ and Illustrators’ mentorship for her fiction writing, and has been shortlisted for two manuscript development programs. She is currently working on her third novel. Emily can be reached via her website: https://emilybrewin.com/