“Just Lang Lang it … get an attitude!”
Every time I shout this “code” for energy and emotion to discourage a lackluster performance by a student who is either bored or adhering too strictly to standards of posture, counting and fussy details, I feel a little frisson of satisfaction. Because times have changed. And now classical musicians have claimed some of the license long granted automatically to pop musicians. Now we can bounce onto the stage, adjust our piano benches to our individual preference and dive into the music with gusto. We can sway and rotate, wave our arms, display facial expressions worthy of Marcel Marceau and provide an audience experience rivalling that offered to aficionados of a rock star. And we have a cohort of astonishing young performers who have joyfully joined this new trend. Among the most popular is Lang Lang, whose exuberant abandon and sheer joy in performing are a treat for his audiences. While traditionalists may cringe, there’s no denying he’s loosened the straitjacket for a generation of upcoming classical pianists … a straitjacket that I pushed against almost forty years ago. Today I gleefully rip it off for my students.
When I began learning piano, there were definite rules for sitting at your instrument. There was the proper positioning of the hands, the shoulders, the angle of your elbows, the curve of your back and just about everything else one can think of. The primers of the day included photos of the “proper posture at the piano” for all beginning students. And that position could well be duplicated by placing a department story dummy in a fixed and rigid pose in front of those keys, confident that it would remain immobile. Any movement which suggested emotion … or even a sentient human being … was taboo.
But I got lucky … thrice. The first serendipity was my first teacher, Mrs Rawlings, an enchanting British lady trained as a concert pianist. While she observed the elegance and demeanor of her culture, she loved music and delighted in sharing it with her her students. And she had reached a level of performance in which technique and discipline had long since been absorbed into her morphology. Her body and soul responded to the music. When she placed her fingers on the keyboard, only the pure sound existed.
Sometimes as a treat at the end of a lesson, she would play a few bars of one of the great classics … the Moonlight Sonata, the Pathétique or a Chopin Nocturne. She would swoop over the keys, her arms undulating like a ballerina as her fingers floated over the arpeggio passages. Then she’d suddenly change mood and launch into a bravura chord passage, lifting her hands impossibly high and then descending onto a cascade of rich harmonies. I sat there entranced by the music and her astonishing acrobatics.
Not surprisingly, as I began to learn my notes more fluently and started to attempt some of the easier classics, I adopted some of Mrs. Rawlings’ flourishes. She did her best to keep them under control and insisted that my finger position be a correct paw and “not a claw”. And that I not loll on the pedal. But otherwise, I was allowed some leniency.
About five years later, I encountered a second fortuitous situation. Mrs. Rawlings decided that I had enough talent to audition for a scholarship to Quebec Conservatoire du Musique and that if I were selected, then she would entrust me to Lubka Kolessa, a brilliant teacher who had been a famous concert pianist in Europe before coming to Canada. Madame Kolessa was indeed brilliant But she was also eccentric, temperamental and very intimidating.
And she made it a goal and mission to imprint upon each of her students, the “Kolessa” stamp … which was an extraordinarily difficult and effective technique for a concert performer. It was rumored that years ago in the Ukraine, she’d acquired this secret through her grandmother, who had been taught by student of Chopin. Whether this was true or merely Conservatoire scuttlebutt, I never found out. But I was subjected to a six month training regimen of technical exercises which might well have daunted a dedicated marine. I now realize it was her method of weeding out the merely talented from the single-minded masochists whose eyes were fixed on that concert stage.
For half a year I spent two hours in the morning and another two in the afternoon, sitting at my piano and lifting my hand to an altitude of about two feet above the keys and then relaxing as I dropped onto the correct notes. Lift … relax … and fall. Each lesson began with these exercises. Placing the second and fourth finger on thirds, I would make two octave arcs up and down the entire length of the keyboard as Madame Kolessa screeched …”Relax … RELAX …” every time I reached the top of each parabola. And frequently she would stand behind me and intercept my hand just before I dropped onto a third. Apparently checking my level of relaxation. Which rarely met her standards.
If I weren’t sufficiently languid, she’d grab my wrist, hurl it even higher than the usual two feet and slam it down onto the keys. “RELAX … you are zo steef … ” she would howl. In a short time my arm displayed a frieze of bruises which today would probably entail threats of abuse from over-solicitous parents. But in those days, it was sink or swam.
In six months I had acquired an ability to accurately attack a note from an astonishingly impressive height, a feat which later attracted a lot of attention at Music Festivals and various competitions And which marked me as a “Kolessa” student … a label wholly to my advantage in Montreal where the norm was still a very restrained and stiff performing style. And along with my fairly liberal training with my first teacher, combined to give me a definite edge. Whether judges and adjudicators liked my gyrations or not, I definitely stood out and I exploited this to the max. I gleefully accepted their critiques because I was confident that even with reservations regarding my eccentric and rather outré style of playing, they almost invariably awarded me the winning marks.
The third bit of happy coincidence was the appearance of the brilliant Glenn Gould on the music scene about a decade earlier. The twenty-three year old Canadian burst into the limelight after a single performance in New York Town Hall where he scored a contract with Columbia Masterworks. If it were possible to defy every possible pianistic convention, the young Gould did so … with relish. He favored a battered old wooden chair, the legs of which had been chopped off by a good six inches or more. From that lower altitude he hunched over the keys like a dyspeptic prawn, waving his arms in the air and murmuring his own unique accompaniment, a habit which distressed his recording team at Columbia. In some of the early recordings that distinct humming is clearly audible.
His first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations became his signature work. And became my obsession. Saving my pennies I finally accumulated the price of the score … a lovely Peters Urtext edition which required me to fill in my own fingering and allowed me the luxury of inventing my own dynamics. I chose not to. I merely copied Gould’s.
I spent the entire summer learning the Goldbergs in the style of my idol. I found a small piano stool and copied that signature spinal curvature, I waved my arms around and now and then allowed myself a small audible humming. By September I had completed what seemed to me a very credible performance of the first fifteen variations.
In September, I moved to New York for my first semester at Juilliard. Fully confident of my cloning abilities, I presented myself and the Goldberg Variations to my new piano professor. He surveyed the score with visible distaste. ” Do you not have something else?” he asked dubiously. But I was not to be deterred. I pleaded with him that I’d spent a whole summer working on them. Finally he capitulated and I sat down. I started by adjusting the piano stool to a preposterously low level before beginning the opening theme. I hunched perfectly over the keys, waving my arms expressively in the more emotional passages and tossing my head back in lieu of humming. Which I felt would be a little overkill. I finished the theme and had launched into the first variation, when the Professor said sharply ..” Stop … STOP … it is enough. Enough! Ach ach … you play ziss like Glennnnnn Gould … ” My heart leaped. I had managed to do it. To play like my hero.
Then he added … “Und you both play like schmucks …”
At the time I didn’t know the exact translation for this unfamiliar Yiddish term. But it clearly wasn’t a compliment. I beat a hasty retreat and relegated my beloved Variations to the bottom of my repertoire. Gould clearly was too avant-garde for my new teacher and I decided to follow the protocol for first year students. Which still leaned heavily on rigid formality and controlled emotion.
But times have changed. And today Gould’s eccentricities would go almost unnoticed. No longer are pianists forced to sit in rigid poses, gazing impassively into space as their fingers operate like robotic extensions of their arms. Today we play from the heart and wear that heart openly on the stage. We can rotate and dip, lift our arms to the skies, smile and weep. We can be one with the music, participating wholly in its creation … body and soul.
I love it.
I encourage my students to relax and feel the music. When there are a few extra moments lesson time, I play a fragment of some great classic. With attitude. I lift my hands impossibly high off the keys as I mentally thank Madam Kolessa for those rigorous exercises. I move my body with the line of a melody and sometimes allow myself a soft hum on particularly lovely note. And I thank Glenn Gould.
Then I show the student a short clip of the very popular Lang Lang. Admittedly a showman and “unabashedly exuberant” as one critic has remarked, he is an inspiration for young students, particularly those who may feel that “classical” music is too staid. A few moments of Lang Lang will quickly erase that perception.
Then whenever a student is plodding through a piece of music, I will call out … “Come on … just Lang Lang it.” And they immediately understand.
Here’s a lovely Lang Lang performance. There are dozens of choices on YouTube.