House Music

One man transformed his frustrated musical obsession into a world-class concert room where grand pianos are surrounded by rainforest and birdsong.

Illustration by Daniel New

It’s concert night and a stream of cars winds its way through the rainforest, along a narrow driveway leading to a house on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast hinterland. It’s the family home of piano junkie Ian Lucas, where he lives with his wife, Lee, and four grand pianos. “You should never have to walk too far to find a piano on a hot day,” Lucas says.

Tonight, he will put on his dinner jacket and stand on the verandah with a glass of wine in hand, welcoming guests who have come to hear Russian concert pianist Konstantin Shamray play the notoriously challenging Piano Concerto No. 3 by Rachmaninov. Lucas loves playing the piano, but he loves watching brilliant musicians like Shamray even more.

In the car park, local teenager Ben McDonald is guiding cars to available spots before the concert starts. For months, the 19-year-old has been practising piano for nine hours a day, preparing for his audition to the Elder Conservatorium of Music in Adelaide, where Shamray teaches. His dream is to become Shamray’s student. He’s close.

“It’s all because of Ian Lucas,” McDonald says. “It’s all because of this place.”

Lucas’s concert hall is a room full of natural light with large windows framing the rainforest behind. In it are two pianos — an Emerald Series Model B Classic Steinway and a Kawai baby grand — nested together, encircled by 150 chairs. No chair is more than 10 metres from the pianos, some as close as two. It’s an unusual world-class venue in that the birdsong is almost as loud as the chatter from the crowd. It is strikingly intimate.

Lucas, 65, bought the Montville property with a dream to build a performance venue for both international artists and young, talented musicians. He wanted to make a place for music that wasn’t about mega performances but something akin to hausmusik, the predominately German tradition of amateur and professional musicmaking in the family home.

“House concerts — chamber music — used to be completely normal,” says Lucas. “Chopin and Liszt would have played half of their concerts in someone’s home. It wasn’t until venues like London’s Royal Albert Hall were built, with 10,000 seats, when they suddenly realised, well, we can make more money out of this. But normally, it was always done in a small setting.”

Lucas hosted his first house concert here in 2007, converting what was then a verandah into a 70-seat room after he heard legendary pianist Pascal Rogé was in the country, looking to do some house concerts.

“We’d only just bought the place, but I jumped at the opportunity, booked Pascal, and then encouraged the builders to get the room up in time, so he could come play in it. That’s where it started. And it worked.”

Before long, Lucas wanted more space for the concerts and built a bigger room, connected to the house, where Shamray will play tonight. Lucas sees small, world-class venues like this as an important tool to support upcoming musicians.

“You know The Three Tenors? Well, they almost wrecked music performance for the average very good player; the very good player who was not a celebrity or a great player. Suddenly all the promoters got in and if you couldn’t sell 10,000 CDs and you couldn’t be broadcast around the world, if you couldn’t fill the great opera houses or a 10,000-seat auditorium night after night, you weren’t wanted. 

“I had been a failed music student, very average by today’s standards. I saw the hopelessness of the typically average or disheartened or failed music student and I thought we need to build somewhere where these people can play. We’ve got to provide a place for the young people to play. We need to give them an address because otherwise, like everything else, music will be run by accountants and promoters.”

For a man so unashamedly obsessed with the piano — with playing it, with listening to it, with supporting young pianists, with showcasing piano stars — it comes as a surprise to learn that, for 32 years, Lucas did not play a single note.

He was 19 years old — the same age as McDonald, in the car park — when his own piano studies came to an abrupt halt.

Lucas grew up in Tasmania, the son of a hardworking, no-nonsense baker who wasn’t interested in music education. But his mother, Joan, was. When Lucas was four years old, she sat him up at the piano next to her, teaching him not only how to play but also how to practise. “Her insistence on disciplined practice was a true and lasting gift.” Lucas went on to study piano at the conservatorium in Hobart, but after a year his father withdrew his support.

“It was tragic,” Lucas says. “One minute I was a student, and then the next minute I was … a dropout.”

His father lined up a job for him in the public service as a typographical error checker. “I hated it there. I’d walk along dreaming of playing the piano.” But it was the 1970s: “Hobart, well, it was bleak and there was no hope for a musician,” Lucas says. “More or less vindicating my father’s opinion.”

He didn’t last long as a typographical error checker and instead got a job at the casino to pay for pilot training. And then he flew planes, racking up more than 17,500 hours as a commercial pilot, working as an outback mailman and for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, QantasLink and Jetstar. In that time, Lucas didn’t play a single note on the piano.

“It doesn’t mean I didn’t think about it, though.”

When Lucas turned 50, after a series of health issues including bowel cancer and with encouragement from his wife, he decided to return to the piano. Slowly but surely his fingers and body readjusted to the keyboard. And once again the music started to flow.

Around this time Lucas’s son, Sam, picked up the cello. Lucas had taught both his children, twins Sam and Meg, to play piano when they were young. Meg was good — she still plays when she’s not busy with her law career — but “on the piano, Sam’s fingers were hopeless”. Then someone at school put a cello in his hands. “It was the last thing I would have done; I mean I’m a piano junkie,” says Lucas. Sam started cello lessons and then one day, out of the blue, he said he’d like to be a professional cellist.

Sam, like a lot of children, “didn’t want to practise, wouldn’t practise, couldn’t practise”. So Lucas devised a system to help him learn. “I called it the Ian Lucas Approved Method of Teaching Kids Music.”

The trick is, says Lucas, you never tell kids when to start. You tell them when they can stop. And then you sit next to them while they practise. Supervision in the early days is key.

“I’ll just go back a step,” Lucas says. “I’m a dreadful swimmer. I was at the local pool, just struggling up and down, when I saw this kid training. And beside him was his coach, walking up and down the pool, talking to him the whole way. And I thought, ‘That’s why our swimmers are so good and our musicians struggle.’ It was a light-bulb moment. Because a swimmer won’t get their feet wet unless the coach alongside is telling him how to do it. But with music, you send your children to the teacher where they’ll do 30 minutes per week and then they come home and sit there by themselves, practising it all wrong. The Australian swim team is how the Australian musicians should be educated.

“I said, ‘Okay, Sam, you want to learn? We’ll do half an hour a day. And when we get to the half hour, we’ll stop. There’s no going over.’ I sat with him for half an hour every day. And because he knew when he was going to finish, because he knew when he was going to get out of the pool, he was happy.”

Sam started to improve and, because he saw himself improving, he wanted to practise more. “So, we went to 50 minutes, and then it got to the point where Sam became self-motivated. It was like a snowball rolling down the hill.”

The snowball has rolled all the way to Düsseldorf, Germany, where Sam, now 27, studies cello at the prestigious Robert Schumann University of Music, with a promising international cello career ahead.

Lucas is proud of his son, excited for him. “Sam has achieved all the things I ever wanted to achieve.” And unlike his own father back in the 1970s, Lucas is happy to financially support his son to finish his music studies. “I think I’m always compensating for my father. He was not an easy man to have as a father. He was a kind-hearted guy and a generous guy, but he just didn’t get [music].

“Before he died, my father apologised to me. He said, ‘Look, I didn’t see the world changing. You should have studied a couple more years.’ I think he understood it was, after 13 months of study, a bit too early to bring up the drawbridge; that by today’s standards, it was bad parenting.”

Tonight, when Konstantin Shamray, tall, lean and charismatic, walks into the concert room in his tuxedo and sits at the piano, readying himself for the Rach Three, Ben McDonald, the aspiring piano student from the car park, will stand by his side to turn the pages. As torrents of emotion and melody pour out of Shamray’s hands, McDonald will be watching from only centimetres away.

“A few years ago, my parents found an article about this place in a local magazine,” McDonald says. “Dad called Ian to book tickets to a concert and told him that I played the piano. Ian invited me to come around and have a lesson with him. I was atrocious at the time. I was 15 but, in that one afternoon, Ian changed my life.”

Until then, McDonald had practised the piano “like, 15 minutes a day, and only when my dad made me”. All his friends hated classical music. The teachers at his school weren’t that interested, either. “I got As in music because of my natural, small talent, but I really knew nothing about music, or classical music.”

After meeting Lucas, McDonald immediately started practising three hours a day. He now had a model for what it meant to take the piano seriously.

“Ian basically just laid down the law. He said, ‘if you ever want to do anything, you have to work’. He organised for me to have a lesson with Zofia Lalak, a teacher of piano at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, and then a bit later with Konstantin Shamray. I basically adored Konstantin from the moment I met him. And it’s been my dream ever since to be his student.”

In a piece for The Monthly last year, pianist and writer Anna Goldsworthy described the formative impact of an adult taking a child seriously. “Many people have had their lives transformed by individual music lessons, and I count myself among them,” she wrote. “At the age of nine, there was an adult in my life who took me sufficiently seriously to spend time with me in a room each week. Such a relationship is formative, regardless of whether a child is destined to become a musician. The success of the interaction is based on many things, not least the expertise and artistry of the teacher. But — as in a therapeutic relationship — very little can happen outside an atmosphere of care. Above all, the student needs to be seen, and heard.”

Professional musicians like Shamray and Sam Lucas, and talented students like McDonald, have been seen and heard here, in the concert room surrounded by rainforest. And so, too, has Lucas and his 19-year-old self, who stepped away from the piano but eventually found himself at home, surrounded by hausmusik once again.  

POSTSCRIPT Sam Lucas was a candidate in the 2022 Queen Elisabeth Competition, which was dedicated to the cello, in Brussels. In June this year he played in the XVII International Tchaikovsky Competition in St Petersburg, where he was among just 25 cellists invited to compete.

Ben McDonald was accepted into the Elder Conservatorium of Music in Adelaide for piano and became Shamray’s student.

And Ian Lucas opened the 2023 Sydney International Piano Competition, one of the world’s great piano competitions open to elite young professional pianists, after winning the amateur section — the Piano Lovers prize for pianists over 30 — in the 2022 competition.

For information on upcoming concerts at the Lucas house, head here.

This story was first published in Galah issue 08. To experience the stories in all their print glory, become a print subscriber here.

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