Liezl-Maret Livingstone knew from the very first moment her fingers touched the keys of a piano that she wanted to dedicate her life to music. Aged four, the young musician began teaching herself to play on the family's grand piano in their home in the town of Phalaborwa on the western border of the Kruger national park in South Africa.
Her father, who was the pastor in the local Dutch Reformed Church, was not a musician but loved old furniture. He acquired the large instrument through the church congregation. Her mother appreciated music but never learned to play.
"Every now and then I would get a lesson from someone visiting but there weren't really teachers around. I was self-taught and I think that was a good thing. We were about 500km from Pretoria and I remember once a year my parents would visit the city and bring back a box full of LPs and sheet music. It grew into a massive passion and I always knew I would study music."
After school, Livingstone moved to Cape Town to study music at the University of Stellenbosch on the outskirts of the city. Having grown up in a rural Afrikaans speaking area, the young student was excited about embarking on a new adventure at the opposite end of the country.
We all learned English at school but it's a little like Irish here; you learn all the grammar rules and you kind of write it, but when it comes to talking it's difficult
Instead she found an insular world where people who spoke Afrikaans lived separately from English speakers.
“Growing up in such a tiny place I thought the world was about to open up for me. But Stellenbosch was quite isolated, it just felt like Phalaborwa in the western cape.
While Livingstone felt stifled by the community around her, she was acutely aware of the massive changes taking place in her home country in the early 1990s, culminating with the end of the apartheid system in 1994. “It was a flourishing time for our country and wonderful time to be a student. It was so necessary and we really wanted it to work.”
After completing her undergraduate degree, Livingstone told her parents she wanted to study for a masters at the University of Cape Town. “They almost had a heart attack because it was such a liberal university and very English speaking. They supported my decision in the end but couldn’t understand because Afrikaans people are so proud of our culture and language. But for me it was just to get away from the bubble of Stellenbosch.”
Aged 21, Livingstone had to learn how to speak English properly for the first time in her life. “We all learned it at school but it’s a little like Irish here; you learn all the grammar rules and you kind of write it, but when it comes to talking it’s difficult. I still mix up my tenses today.”
While in her first year, she was asked to cover as a substitute piano teacher and started working with opera students at the school. “I’d never taught before, only played. I was an introvert and very shy. I thought he was crazy to ask me: I couldn’t even speak English properly. But after teaching my first lesson I knew that was it. Through the teaching I could come out of my shell and speak out. Not just through the music but through my passions for teaching.”
Livingstone taught at the university for six years and then briefly returned to Stellenbosch for three years. It was around this time that she gave birth to her son and shortly afterwards her husband died. She prefers not to dwell on this time in her life. When the opportunity came to teach in Durban, on the other side of the country, she immediately accepted.
“It was a fantastic decision. Durban felt more like Africa and reminded me of my upbringing. Cape Town is a beautiful city but it’s not really Africa. It’s very cosmopolitan and more European.”
Livingstone and her son spent the following decade in Durban where she helped care for an old friend who had suffered a stroke. In 2012, after nearly two decades of teaching in universities, Livingstone set up her own piano teaching business working with students and aspiring teachers in smaller villages and towns. In 2016, while out doing the weekly shop, she met the man who would become her second husband.
"His grandparents were Irish so he had an Irish passport but he'd never been to Ireland. When we decided to get married we weren't thinking about moving because he had his own business and so did I. But at the back of our minds it always bothered us that we both would strive for excellence but it was so expensive to live. You work so hard but you couldn't make ends meet."
The couple were also becoming increasingly nervous about crime levels in the country and had a particular scare when a close friend – a double bass player with the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra – was killed during a mugging in 2018 while out bird watching.
"I don't think there's anybody in South Africa who has not been affected by crime. I love my country but you realise you can't go anywhere on your own. You start asking is this what I really want? We decided before we lose our passion let's jump. It really was a leap of faith."
The plan is definitely to stay here, we've made that decision and there's no turning back now
The couple arrived in Dublin in April 2019 and Livingstone's son followed a few months later. Her now husband found a job in engineering within a week and shortly afterwards Livingstone came across the Piano Academy of Ireland in Rathgar where she now teaches full time alongside a team of musicians from across the globe.
Livingstone is conscious of how lucky her family was in settling so quickly into their new life in Wicklow. "I think it was because it was such a full-hearted decision and we take things day by day, that's our philosophy."
She loves the sense of safety in Ireland and relishes the feeling of walking around the shops alone without worrying about being mugged. “The Irish remind me of Afrikaans people; I like their feeling of tradition and that they’re quite reserved. I love that the idea of family is quite strong here and of course the nature in Ireland is amazing.
"The plan is definitely to stay here, we've made that decision and there's no turning back now. Being at the piano academy has opened so many doors, we're very happy here. Before I was disappointed that life felt so small but now I feel the world is finally opening up."
The Piano Academy of Ireland's 10th National festival takes place between March 12th-15th at the Rathgar Methodist Church in Dublin 6.