A Year in Reading: Philip Levine

December 8, 2011 | 4

coverAnna Goldsworthy’s Piano Lessons is a memoir which is actually a tribute to a teacher, a Russian pianist and émigré living in Adelaide, Australia. The teacher, Eleonora Sivan, is a mystery and the book allows her to remain a mystery. As a very ambitious, self-confident child prodigy, Goldsworthy took piano lessons from Sivan and quickly discovered that she herself was either totally without talent or knew next to nothing about the piano and its music. Her teacher does nothing to lessen the shock. An elderly woman, Sivan long ago gave up any notion that tact is an aid to teaching — or so we are led to believe for much of the book. She is eccentric, dictatorial, yet incredibly insightful, and in her broken English she manages to say everything that needs to be said. Goldsworthy becomes not only a much better pianist, she comes to realize what is required to become a true artist. With the help of Sivan, she discovers within herself resources she had no idea she possessed. 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. 

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is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet best known for his poems about working-class Detroit, where he grew up. His many books of poetry include Not This Pig, What Work Is (winner of the National Book Award), The Simple Truth (Pulitzer Prize), and News of the World. He is the U.S. Poet Laureate for 2011–2012.


  1. Dancing about architecture aside, Piano Lessons is my favourite book about music. I loved Piano Lessons and require my piano students to read it. Listen to what Mrs. Sivan says about Chopin and his B flat Minor Sonata:

    “This sonata basically Chopin’s requiem for himself. First movement starts with grave, and after all story begins. Second movement is about dance of life, busy busy busy, like in enormous excitement and anxiety. This is scherzo of life: joke in big sense. Why we have no time to sit down and listen, except when suddenly illness or something . . . and then comes third movement, funeral march. When you come through this music you will suddenly realize Chopin’s own funeral, and he’s watching to see how people will remember him.”

    This is how Sivan talks about composers, and playing the piano. The book is full of dialogue like this and I found myself charmed by the story.

  2. As a writer whose “day job” is teaching, I think this book sounds like a much-needed antidote to the constant pressure to tell students only what they want to hear.

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