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I began my piano studies at age eight and my professional training as a pianist at age twelve. I majored in piano performance at the pre-college division of Shan Yang Conservatory of Music in China. Most of my classmates and I did our practicing in the same practice hall, so naturally, we sometimes took breaks from practice together, chatting about this or that. One day, because I had been playing a particular Beethoven sonata, a friend of mine asked if I had heard of Claudio Arrau, explaining to me that Arrau was one of the great interpreters of Beethoven. In the conservatory library, I found one short cassette containing some of Arrau’s work. There was nothing more on the man in the little impoverished conservatory library of a Communist China music conservatory of the early 1990s. Little did I know then that so many years later it would be the work of Arrau and the facts about the man’s life which would so reshape my own understanding and approach to classical piano performance.
A few years ago, during my graduate studies, I watched a documentary about Arrau’s last return to Chile. At an early age, Arrau moved out of Chile to live in Europe, but he would occasionally return to Chile to visit and to perform. In the documentary, the British interviewer asked if Arrau had any advice for pianists of the younger generation and Arrau simply said that if one is really serious about being a concert pianist, one should not be thinking about pleasing the audience. He explained that if a pianist was thinking about impressing an audience, he would lose the music. It is the music that speaks and that the music is greater than a pianist! After I heard his remark, and listened to his playing, my interest in him as a pianist arose greatly, not only for his virtuosity but also for his faithfulness to the music. It is easy to play fast and startling to strike chords loudly but the performance of a piece of complex music written by one of the great masters is about so much more than technique, speed, or a giant sound!
Professional training in China’s music conservatories is very demanding. We work hard, and we are worked hard by our professors. But attention to broader academic matters is missing in that highly disciplined training for a professional musician. As I researched Arrau’s story further, I found biographers, interviewers, and critics all focusing on Arrau as more than a piano scholar but as one who was a deeply educated reader of classical and modern literature. It struck me how great a factor literature had been in a full understanding music, and I began to understand how much more I needed to learn. And in this discovery, I felt an overwhelming sense of ignorance. As I listened to more of his recordings, I began to understood what gave his playing more depth and intelligence was the mind of a man deeply versed in the great themes of art and literature. It is a gradual process of finding certain key changing notes that would make the music speak and that would make the climax a satisfaction. It is the study of a piece both in theory and in technique.
When I was younger, I used to perform Chopin etudes no.1 and no.4 as fast as I could with the thinking that I would be dazzling my audiences with the lightning speed with which I would perform the pieces. My practice was done always with a metronome clicking before me so that I could play fast yet with precision of tempo. It wouldn’t be fair to my very good teachers to say that a few interviews of Claudio Arrau made me realize the problem with that approach, but exposure to him and to literature about him provided a major link to my understanding that I now had to go deeper and to relinquish the childish notion that speed and technique equaled art. All of Chopin’s 24 etudes are technically challenging and each one focuses on one specific kind of technique. For example: no.1 is focused on arpeggios; no.2 is focused on chromatic scales and finger independence of the right hand; no.4 is focused on the clarity of the 16th notes. But all of the 24 etudes contain poetry in phrasing, melodies like dialogues, climaxes and lulls of equal power. Playing like a metronome eradicated many of these dramatic elements of Chopin’s etudes. My first great influence to understanding interpretation, Claudio Arrau, put me on the road to this fuller sense of music and to a quest for knowledge as a part of the process.