AAt her last count, Margaret Leng Tan owned 18 toy pianos – but these days she is content with “lots and lots”. The 76-year-old musician, once called “the world’s first toy piano virtuoso” by the New York Times and “the formidable dean of the avant-garde” of the Washington Post, finds her pianos everywhere, from garage sales to garbage cans. “I picked a nice one out of the trash – the legs were missing but it was vintage and had a nice sound,” she says. Last year, a complete stranger even left a red one on his doorstep in Brooklyn: “I became a foundling hospital for orphan pianos.
Her favorite in her collection is a vintage Schoenhut, which she considers “the Steinway of the toy piano world”.
“This one has been everywhere, from Carnegie Hall to Beethoven’s house in Bonn. I played Beethoven in Beethoven’s house! Can you imagine? Eat this, Schroeder! she laughs.
Perhaps next to Peanuts character Schroeder, Tan is now the most famous face of the toy piano; When his seminal album The Art of Toy Piano was released 25 years ago, Peanuts creator Charles Schultz even wrote to him to inform him: “You have joined Schroeder as one of the great piano performers toy of our time.
Tan exudes a light playfulness that complements her chosen instrument: “I’ve always had aspirations of being a seated comedian – not a stand-up comedian! she says. “The toy piano gives me this golden opportunity.” She isn’t limited to the piano either: in an arrangement titled Old MacDonald’s Yellow Submarine, written for her by composer Erik Griswold, she simultaneously plays the toy piano, bicycle horn, bicycle bell and train whistle. . “It was incredibly difficult,” she says.
In her latest show, Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, she performs a simpler version involving a toy piano, a plastic Fisher Price telephone and a toy mobile. “I’m one of the few remaining people in the universe, along with Werner Herzog, who doesn’t have a cell phone,” she says. “But I have a toy!”
Has her audience always understood what she does? “They came for a walk. They have often been very enthusiastic and willing to walk me down that rabbit hole. I mean, the toy piano. It’s as crazy as it gets!” she laughs. “But because I take it seriously, they take it seriously. And the toy piano is so seductive. How can you resist a toy piano? introduce avant-garde music to an audience that would never go to such a concert – they will go to a toy piano concert out of curiosity.
Dragon Ladies is a stone’s throw from her regular gigs: it’s a one-woman biographical theater performance in which Tan tells her life story through meaningful moments. “It started because I intended to sit down and write my memoir, but I could never find the uninterrupted time to do so,” she says. “I thought it would be easier to make sound memoirs than writing. And I had the title – I read somewhere that if you have a good title, you have to deliver.
A significant portion of the show explores Tan’s lifelong struggle to deal with his obsessive compulsive disorder. When she was a child, she once wrotehis OCD “manifested itself in an array of behavioral quirks ranging from an adamant insistence that the bow in my hair be perfectly straight to a perpetual need for reassurance to allay my many fears, largely imagined but painfully real to me” .
Music and rhythm became outlets for his urge to count everything. “Music is about counting. OCD is counting. It’s a marriage made in heaven,” she says. “But I wouldn’t wish OCD on my worst enemy. It’s not funny. But I want to show people that you can still be creative and function despite it. Or because of it. Or both.”
Tan started playing the piano at the age of six. Her father was a famous lawyer and politician in Singapore, and her mother was a piano teacher – “although she had the good sense never to try to teach me”, says Tan. When she was 16, Tan left Singapore to study at Juilliard; she became the first woman to earn a doctorate from the prestigious school in New York. “Now I play the toy piano. Go figure,” she laughs.
At first, she was strictly a classical pianist. While struggling to decide what to do with her career, she briefly considered training guide dogs. “It was only after meeting John Cage that I knew what I wanted to do,” she says.
Cage was arguably the most influential avant-garde composer in the world; his 1952 piece 4’33 is performed by musicians doing nothing, embodying his belief that all auditory experience, including silence, could be music. Tan met Cage in 1981: the story goes that he refused to come to her house to hear her play, so she rented a 1,000-seat auditorium to perform just for him.
Is it true? “I wanted him to come,” she laughs. “But he didn’t want to hear anyone playing in his living room.”
Cage was his close friend and mentor until his death in 1992. “He believed, and I agree with him, that you can make music out of just about anything. Whether it’s a tin can or a bucket, it’s music,” says Tan. “He was a genius. There will be no one else like him for a very long time, if ever. He was a unique prophet. He expanded the definition of music to include noise and silence – all of that is now become acceptable. His influence is total.”
Dragon Ladies is dedicated to both her late mother and Cage. Tan sees their meeting as an act of fate. “I think in life there is so much about being in the right place at the right time. I believe in fate, I believe in fate. You can be as talented and work as hard as ever. But if you don’t have that last ingredient, the chance to be in the right place at the right time, your life will take a very different path.
Does she ever think about what she would do if she never met Cage? “Oh, I can’t even imagine,” she breathes.
In his sixties, part of Tan’s mind is now always focused on the future and what his legacy will be. She is proud of her role in transforming the toy piano into “a real instrument that has its own repertoire – it will live after I am gone. At this point in my life, it’s time to pass the baton to the next generation.
She finds it rewarding to meet young musicians who are inspired by her. “It sounds so conceited, but they really look up to me,” she says. “My advice to them is always: just be who you are. Don’t let anyone dissuade you from trying new things. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s wrong. ‘Cause if I believed that, where would I be today?