• Tom Stodulka

The Piano

Us who love the magic from a piano. What does it say to you….from the creative realm…… as you play? As you listen to it?


Some very special thoughts and memories are conjured up with such a topic. Many childhood memories for starters.


I am a little uncertain which piano has had the greatest impact on me over a lifetime. Which piece of music and which moment that I listened to or played a piano. There were the childhood moments when I played at home on my first piano-a fine upright, old and special with the old brass candle holders, a reminder of yesteryear when candles provided light for the pianist.


I would often play for my parents’ friends, as I used to play the violin in earlier years. On reflection these interludes gave me much needed practice opportunities. What those poor visitors had to endure? Mum’s cakes and hospitality made up for my playing.


We had many visitors, often on weekends for some reason or another, either for business or pleasure-be they friends or family. My aunt and uncle visited most weekends and there were many other folk who would just drop in randomly-it was always open house at the Stodulkas in Parramatta. Being a bit of a cottage industry created that environment. Also Mum had an amazing knack to attract a diverse range of people-it was a mingling of the cultures-European, American, English and Australian. We were the new Australians-in the 50s and 60s, quite a novelty. Rich and poor and all the layers in between frequented the home. There were evening gatherings too with special meals Mum and Dad would prepare. It all seemed so effortless, though in hindsight the pressure of being on show like this with minimal means was a challenge and over the years was to take its toll, particularly on Dad’s mental health.

What an eclectic group Mum befriended-it was part of her assimilation commitment, mixed with her determination to build up a strong family unit and ensure my brother and I had the best education possible in a new land. Providing sufficient funds for the two of us to attend at the Kings School Parramatta, 16 years of fees, was no mean feat. The enormous sacrifices are a story for another time and also involve my grandmother’s amazing efforts and support to our family. Mum was committed to gain acceptability and status in a brave new world. This was the world, where being a foreigner, refugee, a German married to a Czech and survivor of the war and post war experiences, featuring imprisonment, displaced persons’ camps and smugglers’ demands, came at a huge cost in terms of emotion, health and money.


Back to the world of music, which often provided some light relief in an otherwise stressful and challenging environment. I remember many an evening where our friends Bela and Greta Herskovits, who had played for the Queen, would play the violin and piano. It was special and brought much joy and happiness into our home. It was a great experience to be part of a blending of cultures-the European and the Australian. I remember many a dinner party where Mum and Dad would create a delicious European dish and after dinner Bela and Greta played for the guests, who included our dentist, or the bank manager, an occasional judge and lawyer, or the headmaster and teachers and their wives.


Mum and Dad were both withdrawn and quite shy, nothing showy; but Mum felt it was important to promote friendships and relationships to benefit us all in a new world. She was also an amazing story teller, able to keep everyone spell bound, intently listening to the many and varied experiences she and Dad had lived through during and after the war years, including life in three refugee camps in Italy and Australia-Bari, Bagnoli and Bathurst, where I was born in 1951.


Mum and Dad were also a very beautiful couple. They both had film star looks and carried off appearances of those refugees, who were assimilating and doing quite well, despite the enormous pressures and challenges facing them each day. Along with Dad’s art work, his teaching art students and other cottage industries, which included framing, art restoration, a cacti and succulent nursery and Mum’s dental work, I guess you could say we were a bit of a novelty. A spectacle of interest, to be observed and assessed by the outside world-how was this migrant family coping? How well were we fitting in? A model perhaps for display and assessment? With the diversity of activities conducted at the Stodulka household, the revolving door of visitors was a constant.


Back to the piano and how my life was impacted by my exposure to literally dozens of pianos over a life time, from the old upright to a magnificent Steinway Grand. I had the good fortune to play the Grand for many years at our family friend’s Bill Johanson, Seaforth cottage. Bill was one of Dad’s first patrons in Sydney through the Australian Good Neighbour Council.


Just thinking about a real Steinway, built in the late 19th Century makes you want to sit up and say “wow-are you serious?” It was a beautiful musical instrument, not to mention it being a rare antique.


It would have adorned several drawing rooms in its day and eventually made it to Bill’s Seaforth cottage on Middle Harbour, on to Canberra and ultimately to its final resting place in a Melbourne Steinway collector’s mansion. What a shame Janet and I had to sell it, but I think Bill would not have been disappointed that it ended up in a grand home where it could be restored to A1 condition.


I was still in the Navy at the time and there would be several more moves across Australia and overseas before finally settling in SE Queensland-this was to include the times while I was still serving in the Navy and as a civilian in Canberra and Darwin.

Before closing this short story about my piano experiences and their magic I should talk briefly about a series of other pianos I used to play throughout a Naval career spanning 20 years. This career took me to all points across Australia, mainly in shore establishments, established for both training thousands of sailors and officers and the Navy’s Fleet Air Arm.


During the University and College years pre Navy I used to play the piano for singalongs, often at the behest of my loyal brother Andrea. While not a particularly good player, I used music as a means of bringing people together to join in a spirit of camaraderie and good will. A bit like the pied piper, I was able to get my colleagues and friends, military and civilian to share a bond through song. This extended to clubs and pubs, during my years in Perth and Sydney-always with song sheets at the ready. This even included one occasion at a Dining-In night in Fremantle, when we had Prince Charles as our Guest of Honour.


I will never forget our Friday night singalongs in the Sydney Rocks with the Admiral’s staff, making music and enjoying the moment. Now just all distance memories of times long passed.


Although music and pianos are still part of my life, it is poetry which has taken a greater importance for my creative gene and will I think eventually totally displace the piano years.


Tom Stodulka

#piano #music #1950s #1960s #NewSouthWales #Poet #Poetry

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