What Music Taught Me
For my piano teachers, Mdm Tan Siok Pheng and Ms Goh Yeong Huay
By Zhang Ruihe
The WhatsApp message from my old junior college classmate landed in my phone inbox one September afternoon a few years ago. "Hi Ruihe! Wanted to ask you for a favour, we're getting a piano to start the boys on lessons. Do you have any advice on purchasing used pianos? Perhaps we can trouble you to come shop with us together?" I gladly obliged – helping my friends to select a piano for their sons turned out to be the most enjoyable good deed I'd done in years. Testing the pianos on display, listening to the timbre of their voices, feeling my fingers slip into the contours of pieces I'd learnt by heart over two decades ago, my mind was flooded with happy memories of my own music education, memories I'd not thought about for years.
I cannot recall the exact particulars of the room where I spent virtually every Saturday morning from my sixth to 12th year, before my piano lessons were moved to a weekday afternoon because of Saturday school activities. The generalities remain clear, though. There were two pianos lined up side by side against the wall – the glossy black Yamaha I usually played on, and the red-brown European Lipp that got called into service for two-piano duets. Behind the piano benches was a table that was used for music theory lessons, and next to the table, a tinted window that I'd peep through before lessons to see if my teacher was done with the student before me. I remember being so short when I started out that my teacher had to seat me on two cushions, piled on top of each other, to help me reach the keyboard. Perched on the piano bench with my feet swinging above the floor, I felt small, vulnerable, exhilarated. It was the beginning of a Big Adventure, and although I didn't know where it would lead, I was eager to find out and raring to go.
Madam Tan, or Chen Laoshi as I called her, was an old-school, Chinese-educated educator –she believed in hard work, finger drills and tough love. Lessons were always carefully planned. As soon as I moved past my colourful beginner's books with the big towgay-shaped notes and lively illustrations, she put me on a mixed diet of Baroque, Classical and Romantic repertoire that lasted until I took my Diploma exams: always Bach, then Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy… A demanding taskmaster, she once rapped me on the knuckles with a wooden ruler for not completing my theory homework; and I was always mortally afraid of her reprimands when I didn't practise my Hanon and Schmidt exercises. The fear was never quite enough, though, for me to put in the hours that might have turned me from a so-so amateur into a competent professional music teacher. To this day, that remains one of my very few real regrets.
It wasn't all work and no play, though. While insisting on rigour and high standards, Chen Laoshi nurtured my budding interest in music by giving me books on music history that I devoured with geeky delight. She also made space for fun. Every December, she would organise a student concert during which we paired up with our peers to play duets in addition to our own solo pieces. The most memorable duet for me was a two-piano arrangement of Haydn's 'Piano Concerto No. 11 in D major', with my friend and rival, YS. It was a huge challenge for us: we were just 14, and both of us had our hands full with school. But learning the piece together was a thrilling experience. Each of us had to master and memorise our own parts before somehow putting it all together, figuring out how to play in sync, not just tempo-wise, which was the easy bit, but in terms of mood, which comprises elements, like dynamics and touch, too subtle and shifting to articulate in words. We had to practise listening to each other, sharing the gift of attentiveness that would determine if what emerged was music or nothing more than noise.
Chen Laoshi emphasised that listening to music is no passive matter and requires one's active participation. So I learned to use my imagination even when just starting out on a piece: to hear the notes of a buffalo-boy's flute drifting over misty rice fields, or to visualise a swan gliding over mirrored waters. She made me take apart Bach's two- and three-part inventions, and later his preludes and fugues, and trained me to follow each voice – soprano, alto, tenor, bass – from start to finish, paying attention to how each line interacted with the others to form a singular whole. Point, counterpoint, synthesis: the perennial archetype in everything from music to rhetorical writing to the building of community. Occasionally, she would suggest that I mentally assign individual lines to other instruments – thinking of the opening of Weber's 'Invitation to the Dance' as a dialogue between a gentlemanly yet persistent cello and a coy violin, for instance, lent an element of drama and romance to the piece that remained stubbornly missing when played on the keyboard alone. Such acts of imagination made me realise that having the same notes sung by different voices could make a significant impact on how the utterance is understood: it matters who does the talking.
So much of what I now understand about creativity and art-making, I first encountered in that cosy music room. It was there that I learnt that art is a subtle dance between consistency and creativity: when a phrase is repeated in a score, a good musician varies the way it's played the second time round. Repetition is not congruence, and playing a phrase with different tone colours or dynamics can result in widely divergent meanings. Repetition and variation work in other ways too. In the last movement of Beethoven's 'Tempest' sonata, the main subject reappears and is subtly transformed in the recapitulation, via a surprise modulation from a stormy D minor into the infinitely sunnier B flat major; order and predictability are the ground upon which surprise and innovation can bloom. I learned, too, the importance of rest, and taking time to breathe, to let the music speak, to hear the stillness within. A constant chatter of notes is not just hard to process – one eventually tires of it and begins wishing for change. Music is made audible by silence.
These questions of interpretation and artistry were what most fascinated me at that time, suffused as they are with meaning and story. Looking back, though, I now believe that the one lesson I learned from Chen Laoshi that has served me best in life, was the importance of discipline and mindful, intelligent practice. Chen Laoshi taught me practice techniques that would develop the muscle memory needed for the effortless playing we admire in serious pianists: working through a piece ultra-slow, or in staccato, or with different rhythmic variations. She knew my bad habit of starting over at Bar One every time I practised a piece – which would have been fine if I'd also had the habit of finishing the entire piece once I'd started. So she made me work backwards from the last page, because she knew that making narrative sense of the music later would come more easily to me than learning the notes. Her method addressed my weakness, ensuring that I was secure in my note-reading because, of course, what is music if the notes are not in place?
While working on the fiendishly difficult music of composers like Liszt or Rachmaninov, I'd sit at the piano, eyes closed and hands flying between the ends of the keyboard, trying to internalise the physical distances that needed bridging in the leaps between one note and the next. I must have looked silly. But the goal was perfection, or as close to perfection as possible: to land securely on each note, with just enough weight on the keys to make the music say precisely what I wanted it to, the way a gymnast lands square in the middle of a 10-cm-wide balance beam after executing a backward-handspring-double-backflip. Looking silly was a small price to pay.
When I turned 15, Chen Laoshi handed me over to her daughter, Yeong Huay, who had just returned from her music degree in Canada and was starting her own career as a music teacher. In some ways, Yeong Huay was very different from her mother: far more extroverted, she exuded a warm exuberance which was a stark contrast to Chen Laoshi's more reserved demeanour. Not that I preferred either one. I had come to trust Chen Laoshi over the years, and to know that she cared deeply for her students in her own understated fashion. Yet in other, perhaps more profound, ways, they struck me as very similar: both strong personalities who knew their own minds, and with an approach to pedagogy that went beyond just providing a solid music education. They never said so explicitly, but I sensed it even as a teenager; and now, as an adult, I can see clearly that in teaching me music, they were in fact opening my eyes to so much more.
Because her mother had already laid the groundwork, and because I was finally old enough to understand, Yeong Huay could do fun stuff with me, like talk about music in the abstract, discuss the big picture, show me the larger historical canvases which formed the backdrops against which the pieces I played were written. It also helped that she had been fortunate enough to have as her music professor Ronald Turini, one of the few pianists the legendary maestro Vladimir Horowitz had ever publicly acknowledged as his students. Yeong Huay had auditioned to study with him, but that he had been teaching in the university she went to was purely a case of serendipity. Turini was a bit of a maverick, who had eschewed a promising career as a concert pianist or recording artiste because, he claimed, he didn't like practising. Instead, he spent his days playing ping pong, indulging his love for fast cars, and being one heck of an inspiring music teacher at the University of Western Ontario. Thanks to the Turini-Horowitz connection, I heard stories of Horowitz's habits and eccentricities, and got a glimpse into the musical traditions and philosophies embodied by the old master's career.
Three principles still stand out for me amongst all that I gleaned from the Turini-Horowitz stories. One: simplicity does not equate ease, and sometimes, it is the simple things that are in fact the most difficult to do well. That is why it is actually very hard to play pieces like Chopin's overplayed 'Nocturne in E flat, Opus 9 No. 2', or Schumann's 'Träumerei', even though these are standard student repertoire usually encountered by the time students reach Grade 5. Simplicity lays one bare: there is no room to hide, nor is there any place for pretence, excess or superficiality. To hear older pianists like Mitsuko Uchida or Fou Ts'ong playing such pieces for their encores, for example, is considered a rare treat in the music community. Chen Laoshi had taught me the same. She used to warn me not to underestimate pieces like the miniatures in Tchaikovsky's 'The Seasons' cycle. The best pianists, she explained, only mastered them when they were well into their 50s and 60s. Technical bravura is not the same as depth of experience and emotion.
Perhaps I learned that lesson a little too well. To this day, I must confess an abiding scepticism of things that happen too quickly, that don't take their time to mature. Call it bias, but youthful prodigiousness has never impressed me much. Give them a few years, I always think, let's see if they stay the course. After all, if it took Horowitz over seven decades to learn to play 'Träumerei' the way he did in his 80s, perhaps we can afford to hold off the instantaneous adulation that we so often accord our bright young things, to give them time to grow into their talent and map the shape of their selfhood. I realise that this is profoundly counter-cultural, especially in Singapore, where everything must be done chop chop: from tree-planting to nation-building, we are a people in a hurry. But a still small voice in my heart insists that my intuition is not wrong. Art, like life, requires patience. And the truest measure of something is how long it endures.
Waiting for an outcome that will only materialise, if it materialises, at some point in an unknowable future, requires not just patience, but also vision. In music, this involves an awareness of the narrative arc of a piece of music, the ability to see where it is tending towards. It entails listening for the long line. The old masters were obsessed with it. Listening for the long line means that when playing a piece, one shapes each phrase not just as a discrete entity, but in relation to the larger whole. It's subtle, almost ineffable – impossible to articulate in words, but as noticeable in its presence as in its absence. You can hear the difference when a musician has lost sight of the long line – the music lacks a sense of direction, becomes a disparate collection of phrases that somehow fails to cohere. I like to think that life is very much the same.
Listening for the long line requires a duality of attention: to what is, and to what has gone before or is to come. In the opening of Beethoven's 'Waldstein' sonata, the bell-like soprano that first appears as a distant, ethereal whisper, suspended above the roiling thirds, anticipates the bright, soaring lyricism of the final movement's treble voice – and pianists need to hold both in mind even while intent on the specific segment they're working on at any point in time. This duality is equally useful in real life, albeit with a significant difference: the future is a closed book, and none of us even knows for certain whether we will wake up tomorrow morning. The awareness of the long line, in real life, thus happens most easily in retrospect, when one looks back on the past and sees how one thing led to the next, and how an event, which may well have seemed a disaster when it took place, could turn out to be the linchpin marking a crucial turning point towards an entirely new and positive life direction. The opposite is also sometimes true. Listening for the long line of one's life-story can thus engender a radical openness to the future, a useful resistance against the temptation to label one's experiences too quickly or too rigidly as either good or bad. In the oft-quoted words of Rudyard Kipling, it enables one to meet both triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.
I don't know if my friends' kids are going to enjoy their piano classes as I did mine. As with so much in life, that I gained so much from my music education stemmed from a fortunate confluence of personalities and circumstances impossible to orchestrate or control. All I know is that what I learned of music from both my teachers has stayed with me over the years. As have the other lessons I picked up along the way. Focus. Commit. Practise. Work smart. Be attentive. Shape each phrase with all the care you can muster. Be patient. Stop, take time, breathe. And always – always – remember to listen for the long line.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 2 Apr 2019