Is Sydney a piano-free zone?

I grew up in a community in rural New Zealand where many of the adults played the piano, and many of the adults who didn’t play the piano did play some other instrument, and nearly all the other adults were either enthusiastic or talented singers.  I grew up thinking everyone had a piano in their home and that of course everyone would want to play some kind of musical instrument, even if it wasn’t the piano.

Adulthood in Sydney, Australia has provided me with many instances demonstrating the degree to which I got it so terribly wrong: this city is filled with (and run by) people who not only grew up without a piano in the home or the desire to play a musical instrument, but they really have no idea at all about what it means to play a piano, or even what a piano is.

I was at a party held one New Year’s Eve in Darling Point as a guest of a guest. Part of the reason I was there is that one guest had thought it might be fun to sing Auld Lang Syne around a piano as the old year slipped out, and the host thought this to be an excellent development.  I turned up at the party and was surprised to see no piano. “Oh yes, I forgot to get it out of the cupboard”, was the host’s response.  Sure enough, the ‘piano’ was a keyboard that didn’t even have the dignity of its own stand – it would simply sit on a desk or dining room table (if it ever did get out of the wardrobe).  At least it was touch sensitive although, of course, weighted keys would have been nice….

At another social event a well-known business identity was telling me how he had just bought a brand new piano for his daughter to start lessons.  “What did you buy?”, I asked, meaning the question to refer to which brand of piano, and when this produced a hazy result I offered some names of manufacturers as a prompt: Yamaha, Kawai, Steinway? He’d clearly bought something else, so we moved on. “It doesn’t matter,” I said, “just tell me if you bought an upright or a grand.” This produced similarly blank looks, until he cried in triumph “Oh, I remember! It was a Casio!”

These two stories involve prominent Sydneysiders who would have had an excellent private school education and no lack of material resources whilst growing up.  It’s simply that they grew up with the complete reverse piano expectations to mine: they knew no one who had a piano in their home, or if they did have a piano no one played it. Music was certainly not something that one did.

And this is in a city whose international reputation is heavily associated with a performing arts venue.

By way of contrast, when I stayed in a modest hotel in Vienna for a night back in 2002 I asked the concierge if he could tell me where I might find a print music shop.  “Ah, you want to go to Döblinger!” he responded, and drew me a little map so I could find my way there.  Admittedly, if it’s going to happen anywhere in the world, it would be in Vienna, but it was clear that all the local citizenry had a basic working knowledge of things musical, irrespective of their occupation or social status.

One facet of Australian life (outside of the ‘arts’) where you do find people playing musical instruments is in sport.  Many of the current Australian cricket team play instruments, and I’ve even seen a few of them perform at a a fundraiser for the Steve Waugh Foundation.  And doctors, as in the rest of the world, have an extraordinary incidence of instrumentalists (and even composers) in their ranks. An Australian GP, Peter Goldsworthy, is the author of Maestro, a fantastic fictionalised account based on his observation of the piano studies of his daughter that has been widely included in literature courses (but note that he does not reside in Sydney!).

Sports people certainly have a widely recognised and valued brand, and doctors still command a reasonable degree of respect in the community, but when it comes to those who run Australian business, politics and media there seems to be a complete absence of music experience or awareness (Alan Jones’ recent vocalisations at an Andre Rieu concert notwithstanding).

Does it matter?  Only so much as ignorance ever matters….

The New South Wales Board of Jewish Deputies annually sends a contingent of Australian media and political personnel to Israel to see for themselves what the nation is Israel is like, obviously with a view that a visit to Israel will be not only an informative but a positive experience for all involved.  Maybe it’s time Australian music education interests banded together to create a similar scheme to transport those with public influence to the land of Music, and its epicentre, Music-Making.

Australia is a country that produces not just excellent pianists but probably the most technically innovative piano of the past hundred years, the Stuart piano. And yet the businessmen of Sydney can’t tell a Casio keyboard from a concert grand.

3 thoughts on “Is Sydney a piano-free zone?

  1. Oh, where do I start in response to these fascinating anecdotes? The long relationship between women’s roles and the evolution of the piano? The impact of technology on the culture of music-making? The role of socio-economic conditions on our leisure choices? “Piano” now stands for a range of instruments and keyboards you and I might consider musically heretical, but the history of the piano is a complex reflection of so many other changes in society over the last 100 or so years. And let’s not forget our former PM who famously referred to reforming the Australian economy to Bruckner. But he was a consumer, rather than a producer, of music, wasn’t he.
    We MUST talk!

  2. You would be delighted, and as surprised as I was, to see the grand piano located in the lobby of the Newcastle centre at John Hunter Hospital. A centre piece, with staff (drs etc) playing live sets to the enjoyment of the patients/visitors/staff having coffee in the adjacent open cafe/foodhall. Not bad for a mining town. As parent of a regular patient, I have found the regular art exhibits in the halls to be an oasis in the zombieland of hospital.

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