Music icon turns toy pianos into serious instruments
The concert Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep is a sonic memoir of the life and career of visionary pianist Margaret Leng Tan. (Photo: Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay)

Music icon turns toy pianos into serious instruments

Singaporean pianist Margaret Leng Tan, 75, has carved a career out of playing the toy piano and making music with objects like the alarm clock and teapot. Her unconventional choice of instruments has made many sit up and take notice, but it is “joy and fun,” rather than her status as a boundary-pushing musician, that keeps the Cultural Medallion recipient going.

Indeed, of the many accolades she has received in her lifetime, one that fills her with great pride, she says, is a reviewer’s comment, “She could play a toilet plunger and make it sound musical.”

The first woman to graduate from The Julliard School with a doctorate in Musical Arts in 1971, Tan has also been blazing a trail in the world of performance. Her music concerts challenge the usual experience with added elements of performance art, theatre, and choreography.

Held at theEsplanade Theatre Studio from 1 to 4 Apr, her latest sold-out production Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep combines spoken and recorded text, projected images, and original music for instruments such as the toy piano, toys and percussion. The show offers a portrait of Tan as an icon of new music, and it also explores themes such as memory, time, control and loss.

We speak with Tan on the serious world of toy pianos, and why she is not about to stop performing.

What do people not know about the toy piano, and how did you get into it?
The toy piano is nothing more than a repackaged xylophone masquerading as a piano. In 1993, I was asked by the Lincoln Centre’s Serious Fun! festival to create a memorial tribute to John Cage, my mentor. I thought a toy piano piece would be appropriate for a festival with that name, so I included it in my programme.

I soon discovered that the piece, using only nine white keys, was deceptively difficult to execute well. Just as Cage had put some serious thought into writing his piece Suite for Toy Piano, I, too, had to give it some serious practice, but it was worth it. When I finally mastered the piece, I realised that the toy piano had the potential to become a seriousinstrument capable of real artistic expression, and that was how it all began.

What do you love about playing the toy piano?
The toy piano’s beguiling timbre elicits nostalgia and the innocence of childhood. It is also a cunning way to charm unsuspecting audiences into liking avant-garde music.

The sky is the limit with the toy piano. Being a “new” instrument, there are no rules to be broken, and this has driven composers to new heights of creative frenzy. I love how I can express my comedic ambitions through it and how it combines so convincingly with other instruments, real or toy.

How different is playing a toy piano from a regular piano?
A regular piano has hundreds of moving parts intended to communicate subtleties of touch, articulation, and dynamics. A toy piano consists of plastic hammers attached to piano keys, and they strike metal rods when the keys are activated; that is all there is to it. Yet if you develop fingertip sensitivity to such a degree, you can control subtleties of nuance and touch, and even dynamics on a toy piano. Anything I can do on the big piano, I can now do on the toy piano.

What are you most proud of as a performer?
It is fulfilling to see how much pleasure people derive from connecting with their “inner-child” while momentarily escaping from the virtual tyranny of their small screens. I am also very proud that for over a quarter-century, no one has ever accused me of gimmickry.

How long more do you plan to play the toy piano?
There is still a lot more I can do with the toy piano, and composers continue to write innovative new pieces for me, so I will go on until I find I can sit down at the toy piano but can’t get up anymore.

Replies were edited and condensed for clarity.

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