My Piano Students in Wuhan

How Alan Fraser developed his approach to piano technique in mainland China 1999-2000

“The spring of 1999 I was invited to teach at the Wuhan Conservatory, P. R. China. When I arrived in October, the first thing that happened was the audition to enter my class. Instead of the resident professors feeling jealous about letting their students go to study with a guest newcomer, it was considered an honour to have the visiting professor select one’s students for his class. Thus I had the pick of the pianists from the entire Conservatory. Some candidates were an obvious pick, but there were others that barely made the cut who later advanced exceptionally. I ended up with a group of kids from 13 to 22 years of age, about evenly divided between high school and college level. Below, I tell you a little bit more about each of them, and provide Mp3 links for you to listen to their exam performances.”

A huge piano soul in a tiny body

‘When I first heard Chen Yuan play, she had fingers and brilliance for sure, but her rhythm was quite unstable, her phrasing was not so developed and she did not have a very big sound. But with all that technical brilliance already in place, I figured she could really blossom if given the right information… By the end of first term she could play Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata in the original version, with decent phrasing and rhythm but a sound that was still small. Second term started with intensive work on Beethoven Op. 101. We worked very hard on the first phrase alone, just to make it 1) sing and 2) lilt properly. When she “got” that – what a subsequent transformation. Listen to her sound in Dante Sonata – and this from a hand that barely takes an octave! Due to nerves she muffs the first octave, but from there on in, it’s a blistering performance that is as intense emotionally as it is brilliant tehcnically and huge sonically. I’ll never forget her face as she played her final exam recital – it seemed to glow but she was very quiet, concentrated. All her energy went into the piano, into listening to her sound – nothing was wasted on any effortfulness in producing that sound. She was like the Buddha.

Pick repertoire that suits the student’s culture

I remember that after the first semester I was searching for a way to get more of her soul involved with her playing. Looking at some childhood pictures that her teacher, the esteemed Xie Mei Ai, showed me over Christmas dinner, I noticed for the first time the slight Mongolian aspect to her features, and the thought hit me, “give her Islamey, Balakirev’s oriental fantasy”. It worked: here was western music that her eastern sensibility had no trouble getting her teeth into.

The spiritual material of Liszt’s Dante Sonata is universal

With Dante Sonata there was a more serious problem. For instance, in the second, “heavenly” theme I explained to her about Liszt’s dual nature, his carnal leanings and his aspirations towards the spiritual life, how the sonata explored this conflict and how this theme was his expression of prayer. Nothing. She played the theme but it didn’t live. So I tried another tack: “Imagine that you  are the emperor of China, and that you are making your yearly pilgrimage to the circular Temple of the Sun in Beijing. It is your responsibility to pray to the Gods and convince them that the people deserve to have a good harvest this year. Without the beneficence of the Gods, thousands of your people will die. You enter the temple, you prostrate yourself, you pray with all sincerity, all your heart, all your love for your people. And then, it’s not as if you imagine some golden sound of trombones from on high, no, you really do hear them. You look up: the dome of the temple is subsumed in a golden light, and from that haze comes the sound of the heavenly trumpets – somewhat far off, yet distinct. Your prayers have been answered… Try to think of this as you play this theme”

Uncover hidden links between Western & Oriental culture to empower emotional expression at the piano

What happened next in that lesson remains engraved in my memory: time stopped. She played, and it was prayer. Xie Mei Ai was there – we glanced wordlessly at each other – the elderly mentor understood only too well what magic was happing! The point is, it was through Chen Yuan’s own culture that she could access the spiritual understanding of the work. Western culture is foreign to her, but the spiritual materia of a work like Dante sonata is universal: to communicate it to a student, you just have to translate into the student’s home culture, the one that touches his or her soul. It was an important lesson for all of us…

Chen Yuan, female aged 21 Sonate apres une lecture de Dante Franz Liszt
Islamey’, an Oriental Fantasy Mihi Balakirev
Mazurka in G minor Frederic Chopin
Mazurka in C major Frederic Chopin

Deep emotional  understanding of Western music in an Eastern soul

Qian Cheng was one exceptional young man. At 16 his technique was somewhat virtuosic but a bit unsteady. However, when he improved his physical organization, his relationship to the keyboard, and started to get real sound coming out of the piano, an extraordinarily sensitive, noble and passionate spirit was unlocked. He played with exceptional maturity and a fire that many times left me in tears (and that’s not so easy to do!). Unfortunately I don’t have recordings of two of his best performances: the Chopin Ballade in A flat major and the C sharp minor Scherzo. These were world class, unbelievable from anybody, not to mention someone so tender in years… I am happy to say that he went on to study at Kiev Conservatory where he was a prizewinner in the Horowitz competion in 2005.

Qian Cheng, aged 16  Sonata in E flat major, Opus 7 Ludwig van Beethoven
Molto Allegro i con brio
Largo con gran espressione
Poco Allegretto i grazioso

Ballade in G minor, Op. 23 Frederic Chopin
Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49 Frederic Chopin
Prelude in B flat major, Op. 23 #1 Sergei Rachmaninoff

Using a physical approach to piano technique to unlock a deep, passionate emotional expression

‘Kuang Li was not so brilliant in the audition – a young, confused 14 year old that could hardly play his way through the score… There were many who by their playing deserved to enter my class more than he. But he had such amazing hands! I took him only because of his hands. They were huge but not fat. Fine boned for their size, but so large that I just ached to see what he could make them do. They reminded me of Ratimir Martinovich’s – but Ratko is 25, not 14! And in the end, when I showed those hands how to make real sound come out of the piano, mostly by learning how to stand with both physical stability on the board and rhythmic stability, it turns out that there was a soul in there as well, that could feel and express real passion no problem… The first time Kuang Li surprised us all by catching fire was in his Appassionata Sonata, but these two performances from his final exam show that it wasn’t a fluke…

Kuang Li, male aged 14          Moment Musical #4 in E minor Sergei Rachmaninoff
Spanish Rhapsody Franz Liszt

A group piano class that was more effective than individual lessons

‘I was supposed to take 12 in my class, but there were so many really attractive candidates at the entrance auditions that I finally created a group class for five extra students. These five would take turns playing for me in a weekly two-hour lecture that would also serve to present my ideas to the entire Conservatory – anyone who wanted to listen in was welcome. Each week I would generally hear about 3 students out of the 5 on a rotation basis, and the ‘master class’ was always played to a full house.

‘Those 5 served as “guinea pigs” in my presentation of the system that would eventually become my book, and I think they were none too happy about not getting individual lessons. But do you know what? I think they benefited more than they knew. In the second term I discontinued the group class and started working with those 5 individually, and they progressed much more than many of the 12 that had been receiving individual attention from the beginning of the school year! Why? Because they had absorbed the IDEAS as they were presented through those weekly seminars…

Flamboyant exuberance and manic energy in Prokofiev

‘Jiang Jie was one of that “group of 5″. Listen to the flamboyant exuberance, the manic energy of her Prokofiev sonata. And this from someone who didn’t even rank among the first 12 at the beginning of the year…

Jiang Jie, female aged 18   Sonata #3 Sergei Prokofiev

Developing musicianship reveals the creative spirit behind a shy exterior

‘Gong Wei, a bit of a dark horse, another one of the “group of 5″. She was always very correct but never really showed much personality or flamboyance. But once again, when she really “got” what a phrase is, what RHYTHM is, she started to fly…

Gong Wei, female aged 18 Alborado del Grazioso, from ‘Miroirs’ Maurice Ravel
Sonata #3 in B minor, 1st movement Frederic Chopin

Sizzling Chopin Scherzo from a small hand

‘Li Jia Dai, another one of the 5, was only 15 years old, and had a fairly small hand. She took awhile to figure out that if it’s not collapsing all the time it can begin to produce sounds that would belie its size. But by the end of the year, this sizzling scherzo would indicate that she did finally understand…

Li Jia Dai, female aged 15 Scherzo in B Flat Minor Frederic Chopin

‘When I discontinued the group class in the second semester, I thought to myself, what else could I do to make this year special? I came up with the idea to have an all-Beethoven mid-term exam. In the end not quite everybody played Beethoven, but we had the last five sonatas plus several earlier ones, and the 4th & 5th concerti. That was quite an afternoon’s listening, I’ll tell you!

‘Bao Jie was endowed with a natural sensibility and maturity that was a delight to work with. It was to her that I entrusted the most difficult of them all, Beethoven Op. 111, and in many of the lessons she really reached a magical level of understanding of the philosophical content of that work. Somehow she managed to put into sound his nearness to death, his looking back over a life more fulfilling than most, his vision ahead into the unknown. Sadly I do not have a recording of this to offer you. I also did not record her impressive Brahms F minor sonata nor her B flat major concerto from the same composer – Bao Jie really had a Brahms year! The chapter in my book on Bach’s B minor Prelude is from a lesson with her… She was also a fine accompanist, and altogether a musician’s pianist – she really listened…

‘Tao Qi, one of my big talents that year. He won fourth prize at the Hong Kong International Piano Competition, and under my tutelage prepared an excellent Emperor Concerto, Debussy’s Cloches a travers les fueilles, Bach’s joyful G major Toccata and this fine G minor Ballade and la Campanella. A very humble young man, but seriously dedicated to a higher pianism…

Tao Qi, male aged 16     Ballade in G minor Op. 23 Frederic Chopin
La Campanella Franz Liszt

‘Ran Xiao was my youngest student at 13. She was accepted for the Gina Bachauer Junior Competition that year, and so her exam program was a little bit on the long side – I let her play both her competition programs in their entirety! It was a little bit much for her, as the occasional fluff or hesitation indicate, yet I’m putting all of her performances on this site just because I’m proud of this achievement from someone so young and unassuming…

Ran Xiao, female aged 13

Italian Concerto Johann Sebastian Bach
December (from ‘The Seasons”) Piotr Illich Tchaikowsky
Gnomenreigen Franz Liszt
Impromptu in E flat major Franz Schubert
Waltz in D flat major (“Minute”) Frederic Chopin
Etude in E flat major Sergei Rachmaninoff

‘Liu Qiong was a young woman full of energy – TOO full, in fact. She could not keep a steady tempo but kept flying ahead, so all her digital dexterity was for naught – she couldn’t translate that into true virtuosity… How to get her grounded? I gave her an interesting regime as medicine for her manic condition: all four Brahms Ballades Op. 10, Liszt’s Au Bord d’une Source (the book chapter on pressing and holding comes from a lesson I gave her on this work), and the little gem of a Mozart sonata presented here. When she actually managed to get a hold of herself, so to speak, a really heartfelt musicality began to emerge that had been hidden by all the hysteria. Of course, once she achieved that, then it was only appropriate that I reward her somehow, and so I let her take on Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody. It appears that getting her feet back on the ground did not prevent her fingers from flying as they did before – but now there was organization in all that…

Liu Qiong, female aged 16          Sonata in B flat major K 575 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Spanish Rhapsody Franz Liszt

‘At 15 Lu Jing Yi was one of my top students despite her young age. Among other things she prepared a strong Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand, a very fine F major Sonata Op. 10 #2 of Beethoven, and this l’Isle Joyeuse. But, despite her facile fingers, she had to work hard to develop her sense of phrasing and counterpoint. It was only at the very end of a long, arduous year of work on various Bach compositions that she reached the level of control and phrase you hear in this Prelude & Fugue.

Lu Jing Yi, female aged 15         Prelude & Fugue in B flat minor Johann Sebastian Bach
L’Isle Joyeuse Claude Debussy

’1999-2000 was a golden year for me. As I left my apartment to catch my plane at the end of June, my entire class was there waiting to see me off, and many professors too. More than a few tears were shed as we said our goodbyes. That group will always have a place of honour in my heart – they worked hard, advanced far, and served music well…”