Anita Milne is my mother

It’s time to write a piece about my mum.  Mums are self-evidently worth writing about, but in my case I am further motivated to do so knowing that about 10 people have discovered my blog in the past seven days because they were wanting to know more about my mum, Anita.

A brief history: Anita was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1943 and started piano lessons at the age of nine. She progressed rapidly, and was teaching the piano herself by the time she was in her late teens, as well as working as an accompanist and organist. She married Richard Milne (born in Prosperpine, QLD, and working in Christchurch at the time) in 1963.

I was born when Anita was nearly 24 and living in Wahroonga, Sydney, and I grew up listening to her piano lessons (as a baby) and hearing her students practice (as I became older). When she was 27 our whole family moved to the Manawatu district of New Zealand where Richard was the Business Manager of a boarding college, Longburn College. While there Anita was asked to join the faculty teaching high school music, as well as being the resident piano, organ and theory teacher.

During the nearly 10 years we were at Longburn, Anita organised a series of concerts performed by the students; productions which subsequently toured New Zealand.  Anita also organised children’s singing groups and produced and directed music theatre presentations by children and adolescents.  And it was during this time that Anita gained a number of piano teaching qualifications (LTCL and LRSM), as well as taking further training as an organist.

In 1980 we moved to Auckland, and Anita established a piano teaching practice there (in the St Heliers/Glendowie area), until 1985 when Richard was headhunted for a job in Sydney.  Anita moved to Sydney in the second half of 1985, and Richard and Anita built a home in Cherrybrook which then was the site of her piano teaching practice until the middle of last year (2009).

During most of the more than 20 years Anita was teaching in Cherrybrook I also worked as a piano teacher alongside her (from 1989), and my sister, Suzanne, also taught piano with us for a number of years.  The house really did become devoted to piano teaching, and during the time all three of us were working together we devised a number of programs and teaching aids that made the experience of learning piano at our studio quite unique. The studio was originally called the Milne Music Studio, later changing to Pepperbox School of Music.

And it was during this time that Anita started urging me to compose educational piano music (which I first started doing in November 1995).  And over the next few years Anita was an integral part of my composing process, giving me feedback from a piano teacher’s point of view as to the usefulness of each of my compositions, and the likelihood (in her opinion) that students would actually want to play the pieces.

In 2001 I started collating the material that would become the Getting to series (Preliminary, Grades One and Two first published in 2003), and it was during this period that Anita started notating the ideas that she had been teaching with over the years.  In 2006 I included one of these pieces in each of Getting to Preliminary, The New Mix and Getting to Grade One, The New Mix.

In 2006 we were also working on a publication that Faber Music were going to publish, My Very First Little Peppers, pieces mostly composed by Anita for use with students in the first six months of lessons. My pregnancy in 2006 interrupted the timeframes of this publication, and to date Faber Music have not published the collection, but two of the pieces Anita had composed during this period have been included in last year’s P Plate Piano publications from the Australia Music Examination Board.

Anita’s published music to date:

The Last Leaves of Autumn, in P Plate Piano Book One. This piece is a beautiful piece exploring how to play the two-note slur, and also exploring how harmonics work on the piano.  Students cover the whole keyboard while playing this piece.

Who’s There, in P Plate Piano Book Two. This piece is partly off-keyboard, with students knocking rhythms on the body of the piano alternating with 5ths being played in either hand.  This piece also explores the difference between a perfect and a diminished 5th, and explores the idea of enharmonic equivalence, with the right hand playing G flat, while the left hand plays F sharp.

Shiver Me Timbers, in Getting to Preliminary, the New Mix. This piece is really a set of variations on the chords A minor and G major, in much the same way that the folk song “What shall we do with the drunken sailor” is.  All sorts of pianistic possibilities are explored, including clusters, triads and moving between octaves, as well as a range of articulations and rhythmic devices.

Shiver Me Timbers II, in Getting to Grade One, the New Mix. This piece is a more difficult set of variations on the same harmonic sequence as Shiver Me Timbers.

Anita doesn’t really consider herself a composer, simply a piano teacher coming up with material that solves the problems she sees her students facing as they attempt to master various techniques and styles.  But her material is really well written and the students enjoy playing her music.  It’s not the kind of old-fashioned stuff one normally assumes piano teachers will come up with – but maybe in the 21st century we expect different things from piano teachers than we did in the 20th.

I rely on Anita to give me brutally honest feedback about my compositions and ideas, and we teach each other’s students from time to time to monitor how different students respond to different approaches.  And of course, I’ve benefitted from her experience as a piano teacher right from my earliest years: Anita was an early adopter of new music that would become available in New Zealand, and I think she was among the first teachers there to really use the music of Kabalevksy and Rybicki there in the 1970s.  Her interest in finding engaging new repertoire resulted in my hearing a wide range of piano music as a child and student, and certainly impacted on my own ideas about what makes a good piece of educational piano music.

Hopefully we’ll get that My Very First Little Peppers book published soon!  But in the meantime I’m sure there will be other publications in which Anita’s music will surface.

Anita and Richard moved to Annandale (in Sydney’s inner west) in the middle of 2009, and Anita is now teaching some students at her new home while still teaching her remaining students in Sydney’s north-west from a piano teaching venue in a primary school in that area. Anita and I are currently working on a range of new ideas for working with students in the first five years of lessons, and are road-testing these concepts on Anita’s students this year, with a view to making them more widely available in 2011.

If there’s anything you were hoping to find out that I may have omitted, please just leave a comment below and I’ll attempt to provide you with any and all salient details that are of interest!

12 thoughts on “Anita Milne is my mother

  1. Your heritage has been a blessing to me… Anita and her mother, Mrs Fraser, having both spent hours trying to perfect my unpractised playing, and Anita herself being my wedding organist… perhaps I need a lesson from the third generation?!
    I believe that the relationship, the working partnership, between teacher and student is the most important thing… and they were both so easy to love. I cannot think of Anita, without thinking of her mother, and I suspect others now say the same of you, Elissa.
    Thank you for this beautiful tribute to such an accomplished woman!

  2. I would appreciate your reply to this question. Has Anita taken up Australian citizenship therefore allowing her pieces to be performed in an Australian Composition section at competition? Shiver Me Timbers 11 is a delightful piece and has brought great joy to the musical repertoire of our young pianist who would like to perform it. Thank-you for the opportunity to communicate directly with you.

    • Anita is not an Australian citizen. But as an Australian resident of 25 years she qualifies as an Australian composer. The music was composed in Australia by a composer who lives in Australia, and I’m sure that the competitions are about this kind of Australian-ness, not about what passport the composer carries.
      Having said that Anita is in the process of sorting out dual citizenship – she wants to be able to vote next time!!

  3. Hello Elissa,

    I’m playing Shiver Me Timbers II for my class music performance at school (I’m in Year 9) and I am required to write 20 word program notes on the piece e.g. background info on composer (influence, style, date of birth/death), background of the piece (influence on the composition such as events or people). Could you please give me some information about this piece?


    • Hi Harry

      Wow, 20 words!! That’s crazy short! By the time you say that the composer is a New Zealand-born Sydney piano teacher you only have 10 more words to play with!!

      The one thing you absolutely should include in your program note is that Shiver Me Timbers is based on the folk tune What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor – the melody is absent, but the harmonic structure is exactly the same, and Shiver Me Timbers could be seen as an improvisation on the tune, or a set of variations. Teachers are encouraged to encourage their students to use this piece as the basis for further exploration of the chord pattern (it’s an oscillation between A minor/G Major, and traditional music theory doesn’t explain the relationship of these two chords very well at all even though this is a deeply traditional sound).

      But having said all that, the best thing in a short program note is to talk about what you LIKE about the piece – that way the audience gets an insight into the music while gaining an insight into you, the performer, as well! Good luck for your performance!

      • Ah, well, in that case, definitely talk about the ways in which the chord pattern is used as the basis for different pianistic patterns. AND it might be interesting to reference the fact there is a Shiver Me Timbers I, which is an easier set of variations on the same chord pattern. Have you learned Shiver Me Timbers I?! Another suggestion is that you can combine both the Shiver Me Timbers pieces to make a much longer performance!! I hope these ideas are enough to flesh out your program note – 200 words is quite substantial (in comparison to 20!), so definitely do talk about what you enjoy about the piece as well as covering some of these ideas too.

  4. Hi Elissa. Your blog is enjoyable and informative. I’m teaching out of my home studio using the Suzuki repertoire and am always looking to expand my teaching horizons. Thank you for sharing your experiences and expertise. I look forward to seeing more and possibly commenting from time to time!

  5. Hi, is there anywhere in the uk that I can get the sheet music for shiver me timbers as my piano students would love to play it.
    Also I would love to use the getting to grade series, but can’t find them in the uk at all. Any suggestions?
    Thanks sue

    • Sue Rose – at the moment, the only way is to have them shipped in from Australia. One of these days I will find solutions to these problems. Maybe the soonest is finding a way to make Shiver Me Timbers available… I’ll keep you posted, but there’ll be nothing before February 2015, and it might be more like the second half of 2015…

  6. Hello Elissa, I just looked up your mum because my piano teacher wanted me to find out some information about the composers of my Grade 2 pieces. One of them is the fantastic piece ‘Walkabout’. I am really enjoying playing it and have also enjoyed reading about you and your mum. Best Wishes, Noah (age 9).

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