I first met my lifelong friend, mentor and music teacher, Pauline Belviso at Santa Maria college when I was seven years old. I vividly remember being intimidated by her calmness and talking at 75 words per minute. I also remember her not being intimidated by my lack of calmness and talking at 5 words per minute. This encapsulates our entire relationship.
Fast forward a few years, and she would be sitting on the audition panel at the WA Conservatorium of Music, next to Richard Gill and would become an invaluable mentor from that day forward. I was more like her prodigal son. Coming and going in my mind, trying to decide what art and music was for me, amidst a reservoir of creative ideas and childhood trauma. It was often a love hate relationship but the tension of opposites was productive.
When it was time to record my albums, she was a rock. Instrumental in guiding me through the emotional complexities of preparation and calling me out when I would slip into musical unconsciousness.
It is impossible to put into words the depth of the bond between teacher and student. Pauline once told me, “we all look and we think we see and what I learnt in Italy was to look at the detail.” This was her essence and she taught it to me unwaveringly. She was entirely faithful to the nobility and calling of a teacher, commanding respect and in turn, giving me further respect for myself.
I recall a conversation with her over tea and biscuits, speaking about a diminishing musical culture in the modern era. Somehow, the idea of marketing slogans came up and she smugly suggested that her slogan should be “keeping the bastards honest.” We smiled wickedly and laughed wholeheartedly.
The day before her 77th birthday, upon wishing her many happy returns for the day and reminding her that my Mother’s birthday was just a few days away, she informed me sternly, “they don’t make ’em like us anymore!” She was absolutely right.
It would be remiss not to mention the self deprecating humility without affectation. She was not one for false grace or gushing praise. “You should have entered the Sydney International Piano Competition darling,” was her way of delivering a compliment. But perhaps the most touching, was after I had completed my second album. I was sitting nonchalantly, sipping a tea, chatting about family life in her music area, when suddenly, she surged into action. “Come, sit down at the table.” She made her way slowly over to the CD player, fumbled with it for a minute and then sat quietly.
Pauline was a student and personal secretary of the renowned pianist, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Over the years, she had shared all of his recordings with me and this was another hidden treasure. As I settled in to listen, she gave me an all knowing look, poised, all ears and ready for superlatives. It was another of our favourites. Rachmaninov’s last Prelude in D flat. We had worked together on it several months earlier.
About a minute into it, amidst a look of delight, things started to seem eerily familiar. Praise began echoing off the walls, as she commended choice of tempo and clarity of the line. Just as I had begun to think, “geez, this guy is good,” it hit me like a lightning bolt. I suddenly, quite embarrassingly realised it was my recording. I tentatively kept listening, checking reactions and looking like my body has gone into a state of sclerosis. Her joy was obvious and infectious. Within a few seconds of the final blustering chord and rapturous applause from Pauline, we got up and strolled back to the lounge. “We worked on that piece recently and I got a lot out of it.” I recounted. “Yes darling,” she replied, still glowing from the listening experience. I never told her that it was me.
The second last time we worked together, I spoke to her by phone shortly after our lesson and she asked me solemnly if she had been of any help to me. My jaw dropped. “Of course,” I responded sternly. “Are you kidding?” It was a window into her failing health. As we age, we don’t have the same energy as we once did, but the trade off is that we can see more. She had just walked me through yet another score I thought I knew well and had shown me more of what was there. What a blessing. She was still working at UWA at this time and continued until her health faded.
A week before she passed, I brought her flowers and we spent the morning in conversation. I performed Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G Sharp for her on her prize winning Petrof grand piano, as she requested. We both exclaimed joy over the marvellous music! I gave her the worlds biggest hug and we made a time to catch up the following week. As I got in the car, started the engine and pulled out of the driveway, I started to shake and burst into tears. I just knew. I would be at her funeral several weeks later.
Pauline had a devout, spiritual message that took me considerable time to unravel. She suffered no fools and was unfailingly honest in her appraisal. Something I grew to to appreciate and love, as it helped me to face my own deficiencies and grow as a person first, then a musician. I always respected her insights and especially fifty years of marriage.
We shared so many things. We were human beings first and musicians second. Family stories, updates on how the children were going and news about her beautiful sons and husband. When my Mother passed away, Pauline was there. Compassion and kindness were her mandate. She was immensely supportive during that time and I will never forget the comfort she gave to me.
Pauline will be sorely missed and nothing can replace her. I will remember the wisdom she generously passed on to me as much as possible. It would be remiss not to. I celebrate her extraordinary life everyday at the piano and often catch myself repeating one of her phrases, hearing her voice in my mind telling me off or giving me glowing insight into the music in front of me. Our shared love of music gave so much meaning to my life.
I recall her response to an email I sent, thanking her for her support over the years…
One of the greatest gifts in life is music, but also the lifelong friendships that evolve around the love of music and the exchanging of ideas.
I just wanted to let you know how much I value our friendship and your mentoring over the years and also the work you did with me at WAAPA/WA Conservatorium. Your honesty and integrity I admire greatly.
As a teacher, you have inspired me continuously to deepen the process of learning and get to know every score that little bit better than the previous. Thank you so much for your encouragement, suggestions and attention to detail. Without a doubt, I am a better pianist today because of your guidance.
Have attached the score Mum had of Rach 3, next to her LP of Emil Gilels. It’s hard to believe I have been playing this since I was a young teenager. It mostly ran on adrenaline then, but it is still in the hands quite well. I have fond memories of playing it at UWA in the early 90’s and I recently heard from somebody that turned pages for my Mother, when she performed it.
Wishing you and all of your family a Merry Christmas. God Bless you and have a Happy New Year! 🙂
“I will get a swollen head if I read your kind words and believe them!”
“Hope, pray and don’t worry.” Padre Pio (recited regularly by Pauline)