Maestro begins with the first time Paul Crabbe meets Herr Eduard Keller. Fifteen-year-old Paul has just moved with his parents from southern Australia to Darwin in the country's far north. Paul's mother, Nancy, takes him to meet Keller, who will be his piano teacher. An old man, Keller wears white linen suits with ties and lives in a room at the Swan hotel that overlooks the hotel's beer garden. Keller speaks with a thick German accent that Paul acknowledges he cannot properly capture in writing, so Keller's quotes in the memoir are written in Standard English.
Keller begins the first lesson, seating Paul at an old, peeling upright piano and himself at a grand piano. Paul examines Keller's hands, which he considers too delicate and decorative to belong to a pianist, and notices that Keller is missing most of his right little finger, a fact accentuated by the presence of a gold ring on the stump. Noticing his gaze, Keller proclaims fifth fingers unnecessary, saying that no pianist before Chopin used them. Keller refuses to let Paul play during his first lesson, instead instructing him in the personalities of the different fingers.
The climate in Darwin is much more hot and humid than in the South, and Paul and his parents have moved north during the particularly harsh wet season. While Paul's father, John, declares Darwin a town of drunks and his mother laments the punishing climate and their bare new home, Paul embraces his new environment.
Keller persists in refusing to let Paul play during subsequent lessons, continuing to lecture him on the particulars of the fingers and elbows. Paul sees Keller sitting on his balcony drinking coffee and schnapps and reading the newspapers each morning on the way to school and notices how Keller gets words from the newsprint smudged onto the elbows and sleeves of his white coat. Keller allows Paul to play Chopin during his third lesson, but stops him by grabbing his wrists before he plays a note, criticizing his playing and telling him that he must first learn to listen.
The voice of the older Paul interrupts to comment that as he sets down his initial negative memories of Keller, it seemed—and still seems—impossible that he would come to love his instructor as much as he did. He returns to the story, criticizing Keller to his parents and calling him a Nazi, to a harsh reaction from his father. Afterward his mother reminds Paul how important it is to his father that he study piano, as his father regrets that the War prevented him from becoming a better pianist. Paul describes the polarity of his parents—his tall, stoic, quiet father and short, emotional, talkative mother who disagreed on everything in a half-serious, half-teasing way, except for music, the true career for the Government Medical Officer and librarian-turned-housewife.
Paul describes the Swan in detail as a permanent monsoon of beer and sweat and smoke and noise inhabited by people wanting to forget. Paul knows little of Keller's homeland of Austria and wonders almost amusedly if Keller is a Nazi war criminal in hiding. While Paul has still yet to play a note, Keller tells him about his musical ancestry—Beethoven taught Czerny, Czerny taught Liszt, Liszt taught Leschetizky, and Leschetizky taught Keller. His parents are shocked and thrilled that Keller actually deserves the label "maestro" that others call him. This also motivates Paul's father to begin attending his lessons.
Paul begins school at Darwin High, where he becomes a quick target for bullies alongside the other new student, Bennie Reid, who has just moved from England. Paul quickly learns to take refuge in the school's Music Room, practicing on the piano during lunch and after school. While not a particularly good school, Paul prefers attending Darwin High to a boarding school in the south. At school, he tries to avoid being friends with the injury-prone, violin-playing, butterfly-catching Bennie. At school, Paul develops a crush on Megan Murray and begins waking up with sticky sheets. Paul tries to ask her out and tells her about his dreams, but she turns him down. After school, bully Jimmy Papas beats Paul up in the bike shed for bothering his friend Scotty Mitchell's girlfriend Megan.
Meanwhile, by Paul's ninth lesson Keller is finally ready to let him play, but forces him to swallow his pride and begin with The Children's Bach. The lessons are lacking in praise but filled with Keller's vague advice: "I'm half finished." "Is water at fifty degrees half-boiling?" or "What is the difference between good and great pianists? Not much. Just a little." Paul's parents begin hosting a Friday "soirée" night for Darwin's amateur musicians, and the conversation often turns to the always-absent Keller. In June, Paul's parents begin working on a Gilbert and Sullivan performance of HMS Pinafore, with Paul as a marine, his father as Major General, and his mother on piano.
When Paul one day arrives at the Swan before Keller, he plays on the maestro's grand piano instead of his usual warped upright. He notices a silver clamshell frame on the piano with pictures of younger Keller, a young plumpish woman who is singing, and a child, dated Salzburg, Oktober, '27. Keller arrives and acknowledges, without detail, that the people in the photograph were his wife Mathilde and son Eric. In August, Keller finally accepts the Crabbes' invitation to dinner to celebrate Paul's sixteenth birthday and amazing A+ result on his Music Board Associate results. Keller refuses to show Paul any praise. Paul's mother attempts to praise Vienna and talk to Keller about his homeland's culture, but he responds curtly, saying he misses nothing about Austria.
Maestro is written as Paul Crabbe’s memoir, and Paul functions as both the protagonist and the first person narrator of the story. Although they are the same person, Paul the protagonist and Paul the narrator do not have the same perspective. While the story is presented chronologically, Paul writes as an adult looking back on the events of his childhood. Paul the narrator already knows how all the events in the story will transpire and his point-of-view reflects his opinions after knowing the whole story. Paul the character, on the other hand, does not know what will happen in the future or the truth about Herr Keller’s past.
Paul's memoir begins with the first time he meets Herr Keller, showing the incredible significance their relationship has on Paul's life. A memoir traditionally focuses on the events in the life of the narrator, as this one does, but Maestro is unique in that it tells the story of Paul’s life through his relationship with Herr Keller. He writes only about the parts of his life that relate to Keller, which shows how strongly Paul feels his interactions with Keller defined his life. While the reader sees Paul's initially unfavorable reaction to Keller from his descriptions, the older Paul steps in to foreshadow how much his impression of Keller will change throughout the story.
When they first meet, Keller seats Paul at a warped upright and himself at a more majestic grand piano, symbolizing the disparity between Paul's piano skills and those of his maestro. He forces his student to restart his studies from scratch, wanting to reform him with entirely his own style and principals. Keller's missing little finger and lack of explanation for its cause allude early on that Keller has a past that Paul is not yet aware of. Paul's father's description of Darwin as a town of drunks trying to run away shows how the city is a destination for those trying to escape, but Paul does not yet know what Keller is there to escape. Keller dresses in all white, a color symbolizing purity, but his pure white jacket is smudged by the words from the stories he reads in the newspaper. This smudging of Keller's purity and innocence will come to mean more after Paul discovers later in the story what articles Keller reads.
Paul's parents, who he describes in depth, are a frequent presence in the story. He characterizes them as opposites: his father is stoic, his mom is short; his father is tall, his mother is short, etc. Though it is clear that Paul shares their one commonality, a love for piano, their stark differences raise the question of who he will become more like as he grows up: his mother or his father—or, perhaps, Herr Keller. Their relationship with their son and his interactions with them also serve as a symbol of Paul’s process of growing up and maturing.
Aside from his interactions with Herr Keller and his parents, the other focus of this chapter is Paul’s relationship with the other students at his new school. Paul's interactions with other students at school allude to another of his personal traits, the personal desire for perfection. Although they are both initially outsiders, he does not want to befriend Bennie as he does not live up to Paul's standards, but falls hard for Megan, who appears perfect to him.