1988. New university, new freedoms, new experiences, new friends. New learning curves, and plenty of mood swings. Yet amidst all this exciting new activity, in a strange way I realised I missed playing the trombone. Not so much the trombone itself, but more the experience of sitting in with ensembles and reading charts and being part of a larger group of musicians. So I started learning clarinet and taking lessons. And sure enough, I was soon back into it, rehearsing with concert bands and starting to do the odd gig or two.
By 1989 I decided to change my degree from Social Science to Arts to which I readily took up music again. Luckily, thankfully, in 1989 one could study music at this institution without being particularly good at any instrument, which I wasn’t. I had dabbled and spread myself around musically, but I was no trained monkey. And just like at school, I enjoyed having a base where I could feel at home and be myself amidst a wider institute of anonymities and curiosities, like commerce and mechanical engineering. Possibly having music as a base – back then – was the only reason for me to get through my arts degree. In retrospect I would have studied something a little more useful, more highbrow, like physics or pure mathematics.
I recall playing the clarinet at the beginning of 1989 for the music teaching staff during my induction into the faculty. As usual I was being ambitious; after eight months of playing I decided to give them Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. I must have stumbled and faltered enough for them to advise me that I wasn’t up to playing with the orchestra just yet, but that if I kept going as I had been, I’d be in there “sooner rather than later”. Well, that wasn’t good enough for me. I quit playing clarinet immediately. I still played the electric bass in bands etc, but even that wasn’t quite enough to quell my sense of musical exploration. Playing the guitar seriously was out of the question in 1989: acoustic guitars were out of vogue and electric guitars were built for shredding. 1989, the year for pop-rock-shred, the Cure’s Disintegration excepted.
It was through my studies with the Music course that I discovered my ‘next big thing’. We had to listen and learn a variety of classical pieces as part of our listening exercises. These were enjoyable enough; at first, I glanced at these lists and groaned thinking that this stuff is of no interest to me, but as I came to listen and memorise which piece was which, I found I liked it all, just like at school with Stravinsky and Bach.
The one piece that really got to me, and blew my mind and whole body over, was Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and specifically the third movement. There I was, sitting in that listening booth with the old tape deck and headphones, where I found myself knocked over by this fast-paced final movement: impetuous, aggressive, yet nevertheless marked by overarching melancholia. The movement’s taut anxiety is one key representation of the great artist Beethoven opening up a new phase in European civilisation, retrospectively known as the Romantic era, by beckoning forth a hitherto unexpressed manner of communicating music. This music was not clothed in conventional forms by any means, it wore its emotion on its sleeve, thus being the hallmark of Beethoven’s influence on the following era.
I played this tape over, and over, and over again. I must have listened to it around a dozen times that afternoon, coming to the point where I was almost banging my fists on the table, so personally taken by this music that had reflected so much of own inner state. I was suddenly fascinated by the piano’s possibilities, and in me grew the germ of wanting to play piano, wanting to learn to play this magnificent instrument.
It wasn’t until July 1990, age 20, that I decided to take steps to become a piano player. I hired a piano and had it moved up to my room at my parents’ house. How the removalists got it up there I can’t recall, but it must have been a finely delicate (and heavy) operation, going up those thin stairs and twisting back around at the top of the stairwell. Anyway, I had my piano. But to my dismay, I found I couldn’t play any of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas. In fact, I couldn’t play two notes. I realised that my only option was to take piano lessons, and through a mutual friend I discovered that an Italian teacher lived around the block from me, and I signed up with him.
He was a good practitioner, was Nino. He taught me the old fashioned style, ie, the more conventional European early/mid-20th century method of learning piano. This meant I had to study a Czerny exercise, a Bach piece, and a Clementi sonatina for each lesson, amidst the usual scales and other finger strengthening exercises. The Clementi sonatinas would over time, thankfully, graduate to the much better Haydn sonatas, leading to Mozart and then, of course, to Beethoven.
Nino’s house was around our block. He was on Henry Street and his house overlooked a cliff-top on Queens Park that enjoyed a magnificent westward vista over Queens Park, Centennial Park, and much of the flatlands west of Sydney’s eastern suburbs. There’s a sea of lights overlooking the cliff-face at Queens Park at night. His house, very ‘wog-a-rama’ (Aussie-Italian) mind you, was impeccably looked after. I recall walking past one large room one when I had to enter the front way to see a grand piano in the main room. The differences between his living arrangements and ours were not lost on me, and it always made me feel pensive being around his house. Our house was on the main street, was noisy, adjoined to houses on either side, and needed renovation work. Nino was a Milano boy who’d done good. Good for him.
He had a huge German Shepherd called Chopin. He adorned Chopin with a bow-tied pink ribbon to supplement her collar, perhaps to bring forth her innate femininity? Who knows. That pink ribbon did absolutely nothing to quell the dog’s innately vicious nature. You sensed the grizzling menace from the dog when she was with us in the lesson room. Frankly, the dog didn’t approve of these strangers – these pupils, who were paying her master good money which of course translated into food for the dog. The dog just had to gruffly secede to her master's wishes. And as our mutual friend once pointed out, just say if Nino had an accident or heart attack while the dog was around; it would have been a very dangerous proposition. Nino himself seemed to treat his pink-ribboned German Shepherd as if she were a gentle lamb, oblivious to the apprehensions of his paying students.
I studied piano for two years and two months and suddenly stopped, in September 1992. Being 22, I found there were too many other influences coming into my life to concentrate solely on piano studies. I found I had to revolve the intensity I’d been previously foisting on my piano studies over to other things. I was dead nervous announcing my giving-up intentions to Nino, who told me ‘I’d regret it’. I never did. I’ve kept on playing with enough skill to be at the level I wanted to be at, and still do, to this day. Besides, I got back on the “teach myself” wagon when I started playing piano in a rock-blues band, from 1999-2003. I became quite good at the piano by this point again, this time fusing more contemporary influences into my style of playing, particularly those of the late Kate McGarrigle, and Don Walker from Cold Chisel. And I continued on with practicing Bach preludes on a daily bases which I especially enjoyed.
I still play the ‘Adagio Cantabile’ from Beethoven’s Sonata no.8 on the piano from time to time. I play that because it’s relatively easy and because it encapsulates all that I love about Beethoven’s music: its beauty, its plaintive expressivity, its urgent need to communicate. Beethoven is my musical hero.
Back in around July 1992, a month after my father passed away, I woke up to the sound of my piano crashing to the ground. The piano by this point was living downstairs. I was horribly shaken and dismayed as I sprung out of bed. I didn’t know what to do with a broken piano with stings and keys and wood splintered everywhere. The way the crash sounded I knew I was going to witness an awful mess downstairs. The time was around midnight, 1am.
I trawled downstairs. The vibe was “full” – the feeling was the piano had crashed down from its standing position and that there was a mess all over the dining room; after all, I’d heard it crashing down.
I opened the light. To my astonishment the piano was utterly intact. I’d only imagined the piano falling down and making an awful crashing noise. But the pregnant atmosphere in the room suggested something else.
It was my dad communicating with me. He was angry with me for ignoring him and dismissing him and putting the piano before him. Which I did. Totally.
And I realise that this was something Beethoven would have done, too, crashing down the piano after midnight.