The Big Issue : Edition 475
THEBIGISSUE9–22JAN2015 21 Playing On I feel like her research assistant.” In fact, Jean’s family has always been supportive of her musical career, most of all her late husband, Bill. For many years Jean was with a travelling theatre company that played in music halls across the state. “And Bill was a dear soul, bless his dear heart, you know I depended on him, he would drive us up to wherever we were going, all over Victoria.” Jean is immediately animated when talking about her time with the theatre company. She thrums her fingers on the table, miming piano chords and practically bouncing in her seat as she recounts tales of her adventures. Most stories centre on pianos, something evidently precious to Jean. “A piano to me is like a thing, not alive exactly...but it gives you back what you put into it. You get some pianos that you just want to play,” she says solemnly. She encountered all kinds of pianos while touring: pianos that were locked (“you can open it pretty carefully with a knife”); pianos that had a broken music ledge (“so you get a couple of matches and you poke them up under, that’ll keep it up”); and pianos with seats that were too low and had to be propped up (“a couple of phone books weren’t bad, couple of the old backdrops, sometimes they’d put a stack of three chairs on top of each other”). “You certainly become...adaptable. Still that’s all part of life’s rich tapestry,” she says with a wry smile. She mentions her parents, and their influence, frequently. Her mother used to sing to her; long songs that were more like stories. With no hesitation, Jean regales me with some of her favourite tunes, her memory of more than 80 years ago crisply clear. Her father loved poetry, especially CJ Dennis. Her father made tapes of himself reading poetry and Jean loves listening to them, still. She says playing music stops her from “turning into a cabbage”. “A lot of people learn for a while and then they give it up, that’s gone. But if it’s been your interest, if you’ve kept it up, it’s just second nature,” she says. “It really hurts you if you can’t use it.” When I finally ask Jean if she will play for me, there is no hesitation. She sits down on the piano seat (this one at the perfect height) and places her fragile-looking hands on the keys. At first she’s a little flustered, eyeing my tape recorder. But when she starts again, her fingers suddenly become those of a 20-year-old. The tune ‘Stardust’ ripples out from the keys and fills the room. She closes her eyes, leans back slightly and her hands dance. After a few pieces she turns to me and smiles quietly. I thank her. “Don’t ever thank me for playing,” she responds impatiently, “it’s just what you do!” » Katherine Smyrk is The Big Issue’s Staff Writer/Editor.