It is a promiscuous thing to be a pianist. Unless you are Vladimir Horowitz, your instrument is unlikely to travel with you, and so at each venue you must accustom yourself not only to the hall, as any musician must, but also to a new piano. You become a type of horse whisperer, arriving several hours early to subdue this creature, to establish intimacy, to persuade it to yield its secrets. But a piano is a cunning beast: the secrets it confides on stage may not be the same as those it shares with the back row. Even if it comes from a good family, it may be a glossy black sheep. Each piano has its own personality, created by nurture as well as nature. Pressed into its keys are the fingerprints of all those who have been here before you – professional or amateur – groping for something.
In July, I toured Queensland with the stage adaptation of my memoir, Piano Lessons, for Queensland Music Festival and arTour, alongside the actress Carol Burns. We circled out of Brisbane and around the Glass House Mountains, through mining territory, into the outback and finally up to the tropics. At the same time, we moved through a parallel geography that was just as compelling: of pianos and the people who loved them.
“There’s a piano in just about every room,” says retired pilot Ian Lucas, from the porch of his family home, Lucas Parklands, in Montville on the Sunshine Coast. He surveys his 12 hectares of hinterland like an emperor, beer in hand. A chicken occupies the chair beside him, snacking on bacon. “This is Jenny. A wise and resilient bird. One of the great survivors, and a good family friend.” When Ian stands, he occupies much of the visual field. I follow him into his custom-built octagonal auditorium, where a piano sits in front of floor-length windows, luminous in the afternoon light. “‘Flame Mahogany’, they called it in the factory. A Hamburg Steinway, Emerald Series, 1988. The last piano anywhere with ivory keys.”
When I sit down to play, it does not take long to warm up. The piano is both flattering and sensitive: its sounds are recognisably my own, but gorgeous. I play Bach and Mozart, a snippet of Khachaturian. “Haven’t heard the Khachaturian concerto for years,” Ian mutters from the back. “Used to play it.”
During the show at Lucas Parklands that evening, the birdsong becomes very loud. Then the rainforest darkens and the audience fades to black. As I play, the floor reverberates like a soundboard, until it seems that the entire room is my instrument.
After the show, the ladies from the local Lions Club pack up their scones. Ian’s wife, Lee, prepares bruschetta for the cast and crew. She describes the time she found a tiger snake in their daughter Meg’s room. “He was coiled up in her guitar. I had to spray deodorant in it to get him out. I was getting furious; he was getting furious, really having a go at me. Finally I got him out the roller door.”
“You know how most people wind down at the end of the day? Lee just gets more energy,” says Ian. “Come into my bedroom. I’ve got something to show you.”
“Dad!” exclaims Meg. “What are you doing?”
In Ian’s bedroom, he shows me a photograph of a brunette in a cloche hat. “My grandmother, Greta Cadman. Tall, like you. And a significant musician. A single mum who raised two children through the Great Depression by teaching singing and piano. Often had to accept produce as payment.”
I ask him about the Khachaturian concerto.
“Years ago, I entered the Tasmanian Conservatorium with starry eyes and high hopes.”
“The real world stepped in. My father was a small businessman and non-musician. Saw no future for a pianist in Hobart and withdrew his support. I disappointed my teacher, betrayed my own ambitions and left the Con. Became a pilot.”
In my stage play, my own father is represented by a chair: “For the next eight years he took every Tuesday afternoon off work, to accompany me to my lessons.” Ian confesses to having exchanged a glance with his son, Sam, at this point in the show. Every Tuesday morning, Ian drives Sam to his cello lesson in Ipswich. Then they go to Brisbane for rehearsals with the University of Queensland Symphony Orchestra, returning home at midnight.
“When I turned 50 I began to question things. I’d spent 30 years with an aircraft strapped to my arse. It was time to return to music.” He takes a swig of wine. “I’ll play for you if you like.”
After dinner, we return to the empty auditorium. Ian sits at the piano like a man-mountain; he does not resemble any pianist I have known. But when he plays Bach, his hands are surprisingly graceful. He listens to all the voices, so clearly that I can hear them, too; his playing is serene and vulnerable, and I recognise the musician in him. It is not a story of abandoned dreams, after all, only of their late arrival.
There is a mining boom in Miles, on the Western Downs, and only a single motel room available for my family. “Workboots must remain outside your room,” declares a sign on the door. “You’re dreamin’,” says the man on reception when I request a portacot. “Youse were lucky to get a room.”
The town is largely empty during the day. Its playground opens directly onto the Warrego Highway; trucks hurtle past for the mines or abattoir. A mother hovers by her son, who is climbing the World War I field gun. Her husband pushes the baby on the swing and kicks a ball for the toddler. “It’s his last rostered day off,” she tells me. “And then it’s back to the mines for another 20 straight days.” When I drop in later that afternoon to borrow her portacot, I see that she has been crying. “I’m always fine once he’s gone,” she says.
At the Miles Civic Centre, the elderly nine-foot Chappell concert grand is too large for the stage, so it sits on the flat. Its sound is ghostly and diffuse, with stray moments of eloquence: a surprisingly bright cluster of notes in the mid-treble, a brief youthful efflorescence. During rehearsal, a man strides in wearing an Akubra hat. “G’day,” he says, squeezing my hand tightly. He is tall and striking, with a fine chiselled face and wide eyes. “Bruce. I own the piano. It lives next door with my ancient parents.”
“She’s a grand old lady.”
Abruptly he sheds his country accent. “There’s a few little infelicities on some notes, and its D died, one of the tenors, and remained dead until 12 days ago. It hadn’t been tuned since 2006. And then it was about getting the dampers in order for you.”
After the show, there is a reception in the adjacent room. “When people see a grand piano, they get blown away by it,” says Kerry, from the regional arts council. “We have a couple of uprights in the Civic Centre, but it’s not the same. When the call came asking if there was a grand in the community for your show, I thought, Oh righto. Is there ever! Where is it? It’s right next door! They couldn’t believe their luck!” I ask if any miners came to the performance. “One or two, no more. They don’t have time to participate in the community. And the sad thing is that they can’t participate in their own communities either, because they’re never at home.”
Bruce is wearing a shirt and tie, and no longer looks like a farmer. “I should have been the organist Christopher Wrench,” he explains. “But I burnt out at Queensland University. I’ll never forget the secretary in the dean’s office, saying, ‘I wouldn’t apply to come back here again.’ So I wound up in Miles because the parents wanted a farm.” He shrugs. “And I became a farmer at 25, spending my days digging potholes.”
I ask him about the piano. “It was a private indulgence. Oh, the responsibility is huge, musically. It originally came out in the 1940s for City Hall in Brisbane. Back in 1992, I saw an advertisement announcing ‘a sad separation’. It was the jazz pianist Clare Hansson, and I remember it vividly to the word, ‘wanting to allow my departing offspring a good home’. Of course it was a wreck, because the less able the player, the better the instrument, but I made an offer. And I had to spend the same amount repairing it, which took ten years. Finally it was due to come home to Miles, for Clare to play at our inaugural playwriting competition. The piano wire was re-created in Sydney, the soundboard repaired, and the action was redone. And I’ll never forget that day, because the action was on the way out from Brisbane, and there was a fire down below the range and the road was shut. So Clare arrives for the concert and gasps, ‘Oh my baby!’ Then the lid lifts, and nothing is there!”
The action finally made it to Miles, and Bruce brought the piano home. “It’s been living in the lounge room next door for the last eight years with the ancient parents. Mother plays it.”
As I walk back to the motel the streets are livelier, and it takes me some time to identify what feels strange. It is the complete absence of women. The pubs are packed with weary men, eyes aflame with dust or drink. Back at the motel, a pair of workboots sits outside every door except for ours.
At Biloela, in Central Queensland, I part ways with my family, and climb into the tour van with Adam, our tour manager, and Carol. The horizon moves further away; primary colour disappears from the landscape. We drive through Dingo, “Home of the World Dingo Trap Throwing Competition”; Jericho, “Home of the World’s Only Crystal Trumpeters”; and Emerald, “Home of the Biggest Painting on an Easel in the Southern Hemisphere”. The road becomes richer with roadkill. Hawks circle above; a lone wedge-tailed eagle feasts on a kangaroo. “Not good land for hoofed animals,” remarks Carol from the back seat. Emus lope past, like thatched huts on stilts; we disturb a flock of budgerigars. Occasionally we glimpse the outline of a stockman, on horseback or motorcycle.
And then Longreach rises from the plain, in all its memorialising grandeur: the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and the Qantas Founders Museum. Our show is in the museum, surrounded by aeroplanes. “If you told me 20 years ago I’d be living in a town in the outback, I’d never have believed you,” says Tony Martin, the museum’s CEO. “But the community is fantastic. That’s why I like having concerts here: to give back to the community.”
Roly Gooding, a local publican, has purchased a brand new Yamaha C3 grand piano for the show. “My mate Terry, from Kirwin’s Pianos in Rocky, has been on to me about it for years,” Roly explains.
The piano has arrived later than anticipated, and Terry hovers around the rehearsal nervously. “I just don’t like these boxes,” he says miserably. “The wooden crates were better because you could see if they were damaged.” But the piano is in good nick, apart from a buzz around high C, which Terry promptly addresses before repairing to the pub. The hangar is surprisingly resonant, and during the performance the piano holds its own among the aeroplanes, another type of flying machine.
The following night is barbecue night at Roly’s hotel, the Commercial. When we arrive, the piano is already installed in the dining room. “Next time we move it, we’ll need to work out a less complicated way to do it,” he says, from the barbecue. He wipes his hands on his apron, and joins us at our table. “We got this adopted grandson, Jerremy, see,” he says, gesturing at a small blond boy at the adjacent table. “Every Saturday we take him to the Qantas Museum for lunch, and one day he said, ‘My chicken nuggets are taking a while,’ and I said, ‘That’s ’cos they’re waiting for the chook, see.’ And he said, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘To lay the nuggets.’ And he said, ‘What? No! What type of chook?’ And I said, ‘You know, the speckled one.’” He chortles, and returns to his post at the barbecue. Jerremy tugs at my sleeve. “When are you going to do the piano thing?”
The piano is tucked into an alcove by the stairwell, so I have to crouch down to sit at it, as if climbing into a cockpit. I perform some Liszt, and regret the wine. “Sounds all right to me,” says Roly, driving past on a forklift. Another grandson, Cade, steps up to perform his own composition. “I have piano lessons at my teacher’s house for $48.50 per half hour each Friday,” he announces. At close to midnight, I show Roly how to tuck the music stand in, and how to close the lid of his new baby. I thank him for purchasing it. “Should be useful,” he shrugs. “Local kids need somewhere for their piano lessons.” Then his phone rings, and he returns to start the barbecue again for a late-arriving trucker.
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