Classical pianist Margaret Leng Tan downsizes her ambitions -- with big results

"You know how a piano has hundreds of moving parts? A toy piano is absolutely Neanderthal. All it consists of is a little plastic hammer that's attached to a piano key, and the piano key activates the plastic hammer to hit a metal rod. It's really nothing but a repackaged xylophone pretending to be a piano. But within this simple mechanism, it's extraordinary what you can do if you work at it. And then I began to wonder, why does a piano have to have hundreds of moving parts when I can achieve basically the same result in control with something that has basically three parts? It either says something about my incredible fingertip control, or the piano's been too full of its own self-importance, or it's developed over the years in a way that -- is it really necessary to have all those moving parts?"

The toy piano, though, also has a sound that can be much more grating than an adult piano's. The same cling-clang that Leng Tan harnesses can get on your nerves in large doses. Its limited range results in music that seldom fades into the background, and the fact that the instrument was created with the destructive enthusiasm of a child in mind, not a concert performer, dictates that durability is perhaps a bigger concern for the manufacturer (the Schoenhut Toy Piano Co. builds "the Steinway of the toy piano,' she says) than dynamic subtlety. But all these obstacles seem to have pushed Leng Tan further toward a defiant, devout allegiance to the instrument. "I'm thumbing my nose at the establishment," she says bluntly. "I think that's the bottom line, if I were to analyze -- on some level that's what I'm doing. And the fact that I've made transcriptions of certain classical warhorses that work just as beautifully on the toy piano -- not better -- makes me feel a real sense of one-upmanship -- one-upwomanship. And actually, I'll even go so far as to say that certain pieces sound better on the toy piano than they do in their original version on the adult piano."

The only time Margaret Leng Tan loses her momentum during the conversation is when she's asked what exactly she does when performing. "I would really call what I do not a recital, but ... umm ... it's like performance ... art ... it's musical theater. It's performance art ... it's not musical theater in the song-and-dance sense ... but it's music and theater ... there must be a word for it ... I don't know how to define the category. It's extremely theatrical. It's extremely colorful, and visual. It's all choreographed. I have to move between the toy instruments, my little percussion battery of toy percussion instruments, back to the toy piano, playing the melodica. I had a background in dance when I was young. I wanted to be a dancer so badly. All this comes into play now, because I get this opportunity to -- before I even got into the toy piano, when I was playing the adult piano because I was playing on the strings of the piano a great deal -- that's basically my style, working on the inside of the piano. It's highly choreographed because you have to coordinate between playing inside the piano on the strings and on the keyboard, and this moving back and forth between the strings and the keyboard takes a tremendous amount of physical coordination. There's no time to fumble for anything. So it becomes choreography, a pianistic form of choreography, and this carries over to the way I move between the toy instruments."

Margaret Leng Tan
Michael Dames
Margaret Leng Tan

Reviews of her shows have been universally heralded, so much so that as part of the Smithsonian Institution's yearlong celebration of the 300th anniversary of the invention of the piano, Leng Tan has been invited to perform; in anticipation of that performance, Schoenhut has built a new, fancy toy piano for her, one that she will debut during this week's performance at the Edison. It should be a blast.

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