Terry G and Me, or Terry Gilliam on Where (or What) Practicing the Piano Will Get You…

I have always liked Terry Gilliam’s films. Who among us has not seen at least one of them? “The Life of Brian,” “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “The Fisher King,” “Brazil,” “The Time Bandits,” “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” among others, as well as his most recent, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.”  So I decided to read his autobiography, his “pre posthumous autobiography,” to be exact,* in which he makes two maddeningly** brief references to his musical education. That’s right, our hero studied the piano (he still plays), the French horn and sang in the church choir. He even mentioned that he went without Christmas presents for two years as a youth to help pay for his piano – rather notable in itself.

However, I was particularly struck in his story by the amount he had of what seemed like luck, but was undoubtedly caused, if you read carefully, in no small amount by his amazing drive and the self-discipline which fuels it, both developed at an early age.

So, yet again, my devious and ever present violin teacher mind, perennially searching for more ammunition to motivate our students and their parents to practice, got the better of me and I couldn’t help but wonder what effect his music education had on his career and success as a filmmaker.

So I decided to ask him…

Even though he is almost 78, there is no other way to describe him other than bubbly. He has an infectious giggle, makes jokes continuously and has irrepressible energy – exactly what you would expect from the public persona of an ex-Python. You could almost forget who he is and the enormity of his accomplishments until you ask him a serious question and then everything changes. I think his answers to my questions here below are interesting enough to share with all you music teachers, parents and students who may read this.

Me: Did your musical education, to which you refer briefly in your autobiography, have any effect on your imagination or the discipline needed to realize the fruits of your imagination?

TG: Yes, it was good – as a kid eleven years old I started piano lessons. And you work, work and you work and you repeat and repeat and you get better. And you get used to that: it’s the discipline of hard work. My films I think are symphonies, they have a movements – I think like that. And because I think musically, my films are a product of that.

So you could say that your success in films is due in part to the fact that your mother made you practice?

No, my success is people gave me money! (Giggles.)

I’m talking about the discipline needed.. 

Yes, exactly, I think if you’re going to do anything artistic you had better be disciplined. I mean, having an imagination is nothing if your hand can’t draw a figure.***

And music gives you…,

And music did. And if you play the piano with left hand the rhythm (mimics the movements of the piano with both hands) and you are doing two different things at once, you have a chance.. (more giggles but he’s not kidding).

Well there you have it, my friends. One of the most imaginative and disciplined people I have ever heard of, not to mention met in person, says he thinks musically and his films are like a musical composition, a symphony to be exact. Is that surprising to us? Perhaps not, but it would be surprising to the general public to know that music lessons had such a profound effect on someone as famous as this, someone famous for doing a lot of other things that seem to have nothing to do with music and practicing scales. But fertile imagination and genius artistic ideas come to nothing without the discipline and hard work to manifest them.

However, still curious, having always noticed how the soundtracks greatly contributed to the effect of his films, I asked:

How did you pick the composer for “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” and how closely did you work with him on this?

In this particular instance, because some of the funding was from Spain, I had to work with a Spanish composer and luckily Roque Baños was available. And yes, I work very closely with the composer because the music is so important. Roque is a brilliant composer. He made the film more romantic and more emotional than I would have on my own. And it makes it a better film. It’s great fun working with the composer, we throw ideas around and eventually he shows me the right way to go.

There you have it again, a composer helped him to make his film better. This is a highly respected, imaginative, creative, disciplined, accomplished artist and director (which requires incredible managerial skills, too) from the stratosphere of the entertainment world who recognizes the value of music, the study of it, its effect and its power. Shouldn’t we spread this around?

After all, we need all the help we can get…

Post author: Eloise Hellyer


*”Gilliamesque. My Pre Posthumous Memoir,” HarperCollinsPublishers 2015

** Maddening for a music teacher who is convinced that music lessons are the base from which all future good in life springs, but who must admit that most of the rest of the world may be more interested in TG’s artistic oeuvre than in how his music lessons, and the lessons he learned from them, helped him get where he is today.

***He started his career as a cartoonist, was responsible for the animation in all the Monty Python shows/movies, which was revolutionary at the time. All you have to do is watch any one of his films to realize what a universe-class imagination he has.

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14 July 2019

One thought on “Terry G and Me, or Terry Gilliam on Where (or What) Practicing the Piano Will Get You…

  1. Bonny

    That’s another great interview, Eloise! We have to keep at it to make it more of a discussion topic in the mainstream. Good work! <3


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