S.5 E.6: Playing, Performing, and Teaching Piano

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus music professor and pianist Esther Wang.
Posted on November 13th, 2020 by

Pianist Esther Wang, the Ethel and Edgar F. Johnson Professor of Fine Arts and member of the music department at Gustavus, on her path to music and the piano, performing as a soloist and accompanist, interpretation in music, teaching a course on music and nature, and what is special about the music major at Gustavus. Bonus: A piano interlude.

Season 5, Episode 6: Playing, Performing, and Teaching Piano

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

“I have truly savored each experience of performing in Minnesota,” my colleague, Gustavus professor of music and pianist Esther Wang has written. “Performing significantly informed my teaching. Both disciplines contribute substantially to my life as a musician.”

Professor Wang has wowed audiences on the Gustavus campus throughout the United States and abroad with her solo and collaborative piano playing. She has been called a magnificent accompanist and “a forceful take charge kind of artist with personality, spirited and vital.”

She has performed with many outstanding musicians, including locally with members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra. She’s also taught private piano lessons, offered masterclasses and served as an adjudicator in performance competitions. Esther earned her bachelor of music at Baylor University and her master of music and doctorate musical arts degrees at the University of Cincinnati.

A member of the music faculty at Gustavus since 2004, she’s currently the college’s Ethel and Edgar F. Johnson professor of fine arts. And has taught courses in music appreciation, listening to music, piano, and keyboard accompanying as well as a first-term seminar on music and nature.

Like other Gustavus faculty members, Esther is also active in faculty governance, serving with me on both the faculty personnel committee, which she kindly kept supplied with nuts and other snacks to keep us going, and currently the faculty Senate.

I’ve been looking forward to speaking with her for the podcast about her love of the piano and music, her teaching and performing, her path to music professor at Gustavus, and maybe even her taste in nuts, at least the edible kind. Welcome, Esther, it’s so good to talk with you outside the confines of a committee meeting. We rarely have the chance to do this.

Esther Wang:

Oh, thank God.

Greg Kaster:

It’s too bad, you’re in St. Peter and I’m in Minneapolis, so we can’t share nuts.

Esther Wang:

No.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. It’s so great to talk to you. And I was saying, before we started recording, I was just listening to you play piano concerto from the Nobel Conference at Gustavus. The Nobel Science Conference in 2014. It’s just so beautiful to listen to.

So, thanks so much for joining me. Let’s start at the beginning, which is the historian in me is what I like to do, I guess, with your own kind of personal history. Where are you from? Where did you grow up, and how did you find your way to the piano?

Esther Wang:

Well, I was born in Taiwan and my father remarried when I was two years old, and he remarried someone whose parents were both German. And, we moved to the United States when I was four years old, and we lived with my step-mother’s parents. And, one week … I know I didn’t speak English yet, but somebody put on a classical record and it was of some Chopin works.

And, I was four-years-old and all I just remember was, “I’m going to do that.” And, I guess after a while I started playing by ear, and then I started taking lessons in first grade. And, since then, I changed my mind a little bit, but mostly it was, “I think I know what I’m going to do,” and that’s … It worked out well that what I do for a living is what I like to do.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, no kidding.

Esther Wang:

That worked very well.

Greg Kaster:

And also that you’re very good at it, we might add.

Esther Wang:

Well-

Greg Kaster:

That is amazing. I didn’t know that about you. Why did I think there was some connection to you in Puerto Rico or am I … Where?

Esther Wang:

Well, in third grade, my dad got another job, so we moved to Puerto Rico from Long Island. My parents stayed there until I finished grad school, and then my dad retired and then they became missionaries in the Dominion Republic. So, they lived in the Caribbean for most of their lives.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. You have a really interesting background, and talk about diversity. So, was there music in the family at all? I mean, anyone in your family play the piano or any other instruments?

Esther Wang:

Well, I think we all took instruments, but people did it more dutifully. And I could tell my dad was very musical, because if I played and I didn’t play very well, he’d say, “You know, that didn’t sound so good.” I was like, “Thanks, dad.” And he always knew when I felt I was prepared. So, I knew that that was … I don’t know, I think I inherited something from him. And my birth mother was not a professional pianist, but she was supposed to be a very good pianist. And her mom, who I knew a little bit, was also a pianist.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. Okay. So, there is some of that in the family.

Esther Wang:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Greg Kaster:

Well, I took piano lessons, I guess, starting in the … It must have been the fourth grade or so. I have two bad memories essentially when I think about my taking piano lessons. I’m sorry. One, remember, I’m supposed to go to piano practice. I don’t really want to go, and it’s also the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. And I’m feeling, kind of, guilty that I don’t have to go, because of that.

And, the other is that I’m in high school and my teacher … I guess this is what adjudicated me, is I had to go to Chicago and play in front of a very pompous judge who stopped me. I don’t even remember what I was playing. Stopped me maybe a little bit into what I was doing, and said it was a disaster and sat down and played it for me. It was a bit humiliating.

And then I basically stopped playing. My brother plays and actually does a little composing. He still plays the piano. But anyway, you started at a young age, and then when you say you were able to play by ear, what exactly … I never really understood that. Kate’s my wife. Kate’s uncle was able to do that too. He could just sit down. How does that happen? Is that just something you’re born with, or?

Esther Wang:

I don’t know. All I remember is in kindergarten I would hear something and I would go to the piano and just pick it out a little bit.

Greg Kaster:

You could pick it out? Wow.

Esther Wang:

I mean, that doesn’t mean that … I can play a little bit by ear now, but I think that when you do that, and you do it a lot, you get better at it. And so, maybe it’s something that you have an intuition for, but a lot of people can play by ear and they just … they learned it well, and they do it as well as anybody else. So, I don’t know.

This nature and nurture, and I always thought when I was a lot younger and a much, much more inexperienced teacher was, you’ve got to be born with it or you shouldn’t do this at all. And, I’ve been corrected many, many, many times and I think now there’s so many people that are really fine musicians, and fine pianists and they did it because they worked really hard, and they got those skills, and they learned how to be expressive and they learned how to do things that other people might do innately.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s great. That’s fantastic. And that echoes a conversation I had with our colleague, Eric [Rumen 00:07:49] about writing. This idea that writers are born. No. It involves hard work and practice. So, I’m sympathetic to what you’re saying. It also opens a possibility for students who might not be so good at first, and no worries you can come along. So, was there something in particular about the piano, do you think, that drew you to it? I mean, the sound of playing keys or-

Esther Wang:

I don’t know how to explain it. When we came to the United States, my grandparents had my stepmother’s piano in their living room, and I tinkled on it a little bit, and I heard the record. And I heard the record, and I just thought, “That’s me, or that’s me wanting to do that,” or something. It was the only instrument that I heard I kind of just knew it.

Greg Kaster:

That you felt that way.

Esther Wang:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

So, then in high school, were you really involved in playing the piano, taking lessons and musical ensembles or anything like that?

Esther Wang:

Yeah. I played chamber music, and I went to theory classes at the conservatory in Puerto Rico. And I did performances, and I took it pretty seriously, but I also like going to the beach and messing around, and going to school and not going to school.

Greg Kaster:

In other words, you weren’t locked in the room practicing eight, 10 hour, 12 hours a day or something crazy like that.

Esther Wang:

No, I couldn’t do that.

Greg Kaster:

I can’t see you doing that.

Esther Wang:

No.

Greg Kaster:

So, by the time you get to university of Cincinnati, at that point, are you going there because of a particular faculty member you wanted to study with, or what drew you to that institution?

Esther Wang:

When I went to Baylor there were a lot of people ahead of me that graduated and went to Cincinnati, and they highly recommended it. And there were a lot of singers there. And a few pianos went and highly recommended a teacher. And then when I came in the spring to audition there, I met that teacher and he said, “I wish you would have left a return address, because I would have written you and told you that I’m retiring this. I’m moving back to Seattle, and I’ll be teaching at the university of Washington.” I was like, “Oh, great.”

It didn’t seem like the right thing to do to move to Seattle. And I auditioned for the faculty at Cincinnati, and I worked with another teacher who I really, really loved. And so, I think it worked out just fine. So, it turned out okay.

Greg Kaster:

Well, I would say so judging from how well you play. What about, you just mentioned music theory in passing, but that reminded me I was one went well, it was part of my duties as a personnel committee before you were on it, we were on it together. But, I sat in on a music faculty member’s, music theory course. I thought I was in a … I might as well have been in a physics course, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. How important is music theory to being a performer, whether it’s a piano? How necessary is it? How important … I just don’t know.

Esther Wang:

I think, because I had theory in high school, and then I just always thought it was fun. And then I’ve always taught theory, and I’ve taught theory and the piano lessons too. I just thought they were, kind of, one in the same, because if you don’t know what the music is about, it’s that your emotions for it, that it doesn’t … Maybe that is good enough, but it’s also good enough to … if you study enough, you understand the personality of the composer better, and you can understand, “Oh, I know why … I bet that’s going to come up. Oh, it did.” Or, “That’s the [crosstalk 00:12:05] of that composer,” or, “That’s their brown eyes or something,” I don’t know.

I think it’s very important. And there are a lot of people that don’t do theory, and they don’t like it, and they do just fine. And there are a lot of people, I think, that find a lot of information that just, it’s not just intuitive, it’s other stuff. And I think it’s good to have other stuff, and to be intuitive and to be imaginative, but to me, theory is important. Because everything that I basically teach it’s based on tonal harmony, most of it. And if they don’t know what that means then I can’t explain music well without them knowing about that.

Greg Kaster:

Part of it is having that common language and understanding. But you also just said something, which I never thought about how theory can really help you understand the composer that I never thought about. And that makes sense to me, the way you explained it. And speaking of composers, so I don’t know age four, you were already imagining you’re going to be playing Chopin. Do you have … I mean, Chopin is still a favorite of yours, are there favorite composers you’re drawn to, one in particular?

Esther Wang:

Well, Chopin is not my favorite composer, but I do love Chopin’s music.

Greg Kaster:

How come?

Esther Wang:

Why is it not my favorite music?

Greg Kaster:

No. Well, both. Yeah, why not, and why do you like his music?

Esther Wang:

Well, I like the music because there are just so many inventive things that he did for … that sounds so great, and are so fun to do on the piano. And some really intimate gestures and thoughts and secrets that you don’t hear in other romantic music. I think there’s just something very special about his personality.

And, the reason why it’s not my favorite is I, I don’t know why I love his music. I prefer a lot of the time more intimate music. It’s salon music, like music that you would not necessarily play in a big concert hall. I don’t know, I think Mozart concertos and [bar-k 00:14:24], and music like that, I feel the most free. And it sounds kind of weird because Baroque music has so many rules, and classical music also had so much, you know, this is how to do this, and this is how the [rotor 00:14:41] goes. But I find a lot of freedom in that kind of music.

Greg Kaster:

I want to come back to that in a second, but first is salon music, is that essentially chamber music, or is that a different?

Esther Wang:

Well, I guess … Well, maybe it’s dangerous for me to say salon music, because sometimes that means, kind of, easy listening character pieces that might be fluffy, and not of substance. But, I also feel like salon pieces are legit, and that some pieces need to be fluffy. But what I meant was that some pieces were meant to be heard within a few feet away from the pianist. They weren’t meant to be in a Coliseum or in a huge concert hall.

It’s like Schubert, when you see a famous picture of Schubert, he’s sitting in a pretty big living room, but all of his friends are sitting around and they’re listening. And it’s … actually that’s the best, kind of, environment. Is that, you could call it chamber music, although chamber music is usually with other instruments. But, chamber music is an intimate genre, and I would rather play chamber music too in a living room rather than in a concert hall.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And you’ve done, you’ve certainly played some great chamber music orchestra. It’s like the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. One thing I’ve always wonder, you were just … I said we’d come back to, you were just kind of touching on it when you were talking about the rules about how you find it freeing to play. Have you met Chopin in particular, but I’m always curious about that. By the way, I used to go as a kid, my dad would take us to orchestra hall. I don’t remember how young I was or old, but we would see in particular the pianist Andre Watts, I remember.

And once my dad got us backstage, and then what I’ll never forget is there was Andre Watts. It was an orchestra hall in Chicago, smoking a cigar, and greeting us and encouraging us to keep playing, and on and on. But, I’ve always been interested in the performance, watching the person perform. And in this case, a pianist and thinking about to what extent there is room for interpretation. So, I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about that. How you approach a piece of music, and how you go about the process of “interpreting it,” if that’s the right term.

Esther Wang:

Well, if you have maybe a few years, we could talk very superficially about it. Wow. Interpretation, it can go in so many directions, and it just depends too, if you’re learning a new piece of music and you’ve never heard it before, your interpretation is going to be unfettered by expectations of what you’ve heard before. Or if you’re relearning a new piece, I mean, relearning an old piece, your interpretation can change quite a bit. And maybe you’ll not play that piece again, but as you get older and listen to the piece and you can say, “Oh, I think if I had a chance to, and maybe I won’t play it again, but if I did, I would do such and such.”

And, I think it comes with just play and living, just eating, breathing, sleeping, that kind of thing. And it helps you grow. And then the experiences that you explore, or that you let happen, or you don’t let happen, the interpretations come from everything. It’s not just sitting there at the keyboard and trying to figure it out.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that makes perfect sense to me. And what about … When you were … And maybe these are too personal, you don’t want to answer them, but when you’re playing a piece, when you’re performing, is really what I’m getting at. What’s going through your head? Are you thinking, “Okay, what’s the next note?” Or are you just lost in the music? I’m just curious about that. I wonder about this with actors too. How conscious are you that you are performing, or you just find yourself in the zone, so to speak?

Esther Wang:

I rarely think that I’m so into the music that I don’t have anything else to think about. Sometimes I think, “Well, there’s a door back there, I wonder is that the back? No, it’s the back stage? I feel [crosstalk 00:19:20]. Oh, shoot, I’m still playing. Okay. I’m still playing.” And then sometimes it’s … sometimes, really when I run out of … I don’t know, sometimes I’m tired and I run out of ideas, and I feeling kind of hollow and sometimes I just play to honor the composer, or just say, “Okay, well this is what I can do.” And I hope it’s okay, because it’s better than I am, and it’s stronger than me. And I’m just going to sit by the right hand of this piece, if that makes any sense.

And usually when I’m playing, it’s always an adjustment. It’s always feeling like that was a good lesson. I learned a lot, and that was … I want to make sure that I comprehend that differently next time. And, I think as I get older, I’m not so emotional, and I don’t know how to explain that. It moves me, but I’m more moved now when I see how something is built. It’s beautiful to see that instead of I put my feelings on it, and I put my feelings on it, and I put my feelings on it. There’s a lot more to feel really good about, and it’s not just about personal me putting myself on the music. It becomes other things, at least for me.

Greg Kaster:

When you say how something is built, do you mean how a piece of music is built or something physical architecture or-

Esther Wang:

It’s how the music was constructed, and how at that time my mind can grasp it, and that, “Wow, I didn’t see that before.” My eyes weren’t opened that far before. I can see more depth in it than … I can see farther on than I could have in the beginning. And that gives me great satisfaction rather than just the emotion of playing music.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. What about this idea that a performer performing a piece of classical music, you’re kind of a mediator between the composer and the audience. Does that make sense to you? It sounds like it’s more complicated than that, or maybe more interesting than that.

Esther Wang:

No. I think we struggle with that all the time, and it’s a good thing to struggle with. Because there was a very famous conversation between two women keyboardists, and I can’t remember who the first person was, but I think one of the pianist said, “Well, this is the way that I think about this.” And the other pianist said, “Well, you play it your way and I’ll play a box way.” So, I guess you can see it both ways. If you’re going to honor the composer, there’s a lot of stuff that is subjective somehow about honoring that person [crosstalk 00:22:31].

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Oh, wow, I completely agree with that in a different context, which is, I think about that all the time when I am teaching the work, let’s say, of another historian. And, how do I honor, to use your phrase, which is a good one, that historians intent, but also, there is definitely an element of subjectivity to it. There’s no question about that. And I like that, that’s what I enjoy about it. I’m not just a neutral mediator between the text and the students.

One of the other things I find interesting about your work as you’ve got an amazing track record as a soloist, but also as an accompanist. And I’m wondering, are how those two things are different for you, both the work, but also, are they both equally satisfying to you? I’m just curious, especially about accompanying someone, what that is like compared to doing a solo performance.

Esther Wang:

I think that I prefer it now than just solo playing. And before I used to just revel in playing by myself, and now it’s more working with someone, and working with them enough to know that your ideas, even though they might not be the same every time, that there’s something in there that is understood that you take what is given you and you make something out of it.

And sometimes it’s what you planned on, and sometimes things fall apart, and that’s not what you intended, but you can figure it out. And I think there’s a different, kind of, making it whole, or making something satisfactory with someone else’s … with other people’s input. I think it’s much, much more meaningful now to me than it was before.

And I learn a lot about, well, like most of the art song I grew up with is, French and German, or … And so, to learn about a language and to hear how people pronounce things, according to, maybe depending on where they’re from, or how their teachers taught them. And, there are all sorts of things that you can [color 00:24:56] at the piano when you hear them say certain things.

And that’s, like French music sounds French because French music sounds like French people talking. And so, there’s something really neat about that. But, having somebody else working with you, with the … not on the piano, but working alongside with you on that same piece, there’s something that you gain about the music that’s not just yourself.

Greg Kaster:

That’s neat. I can see that. And what about … So, what is it like in terms of, let’s say you’re preparing to accompany someone in a concert or performance, how does that work? Are you together all the time? Are you working separately on your respective parts, and then come together? Just talk a little bit about the work that goes into that, that we don’t really see. We don’t really … we see the results of all that work, or hear the results.

Esther Wang:

Ideally, you have unlimited time to practice together, and you’ve had lots and lots of time to prepare it on your own. And you’ve had a chance to get used to it, hearing other people perform that music and get some ideas. And even better, like when the composer is alive, and you can play for the composer and get that person’s ideas.

Realistically it’s usually three, four or five rehearsals, and you got to get it done, and we’re going to do it four times, and then it’s onto the next thing. And, I think when that happens, it’s being as prepared as you can possibly be. So, when you get together with the singer or with the trio or whatever, that you’re able to adjust to whatever it is they want to do.

Greg Kaster:

So, that three or four rehearsals, that’s faster than I thought, or than I had imagined. And then, you just had to adjust to what they … I’m wondering about … I love jazz, I don’t know anywhere near as much about jazz as I would like to, but I love listening to it, and I love the improvisation. Is there really any room for that, whether as a soloist or especially when you’re accompanying someone, is there any way to … Do you improvise at all on a classical piece and freak out the person you’re accompanying, or-

Esther Wang:

Well, sometimes I will tell if it’s a Baroque piece or there’s actually something in there that says you have to improvise, and I’ve had to do that for a jazz-like piece. And believe me, I wasn’t improvising when I did it. I, kind of, had to make up a framework and get it in my head before I could safely perform it. But, I play jazz related pieces, and I’ve taken jazz lessons, and it still has not stuck.

And, I adore jazz music, I love it, but I think I find it very challenging. I find it really hard. What I see that is labeled as a certain chord, it doesn’t sound like it, and it doesn’t look like it. And I had to get used to … I need to get used to that in order to really feel comfortable to play. I mean, to truly improvise.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. What about, do you play mostly dead composers, shall we say? I mean, the people we think of when we think of classical composers, or are you also drawn to more modern composers?

Esther Wang:

I try to whenever I do a program to do something that is … to do a varied program. So, there might be a dead person on there, and hopefully people that have celebrated a certain occasion, and they have written a piece for, I don’t know … When we had her teach in Gustavus many years ago, and there was a teaching about China. And I included a couple of works on that.

And then maybe a few years ago after that there was all this talk about weapons in the middle East, and the conservative Christians were … Well, nevermind. What I meant was that there was a very bad feeling about Muslims in the country. And I thought, “What’s all that?” And there was this great piece, the 99 beautiful names of God that somebody wrote in honor of all the ways that God is mentioned in the Quran. And I thought it was just great. It’s a good response instead of arguing, or … It was just a way to show honor, and-

Greg Kaster:

That’s neat.

Esther Wang:

… to pay tribute to people that … Still in our country it’s not accepted.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And, you’re reminding me, I don’t know the name of the documentary. It’s the one with yo-yo mom, maybe something silk road, or where he brings all of these international musicians together with their instruments. And wow, that’s incredible. Actually, it relates to what you’re saying about different languages, musical languages, but yeah, the way that music can do that is incredibly powerful.

And I want to talk more about your teaching of music, including the first term seminar, which I know you’re going to teach when we’re done recording your music in nature. But, maybe this would be a good time if you would do us a pleasure of playing a little bit for us.

Esther Wang:

Oh, great. It’s a Sarah Bond, which is kind of like a … it’s a slow Baroque piece in a suite of pieces. It’s a slow Baroque dance, and it was at one time banned in earlier centuries because it was thought to be lascivious. And what’s very strange is I doubt that anybody would think that now, but since you were talking about improvisation too, this piece is broken into two halves. And when you repeat each half, you’re supposed to improvise. So, I’m going to just improvise on the second repeat of each little [crosstalk 00:31:23].

Greg Kaster:

Okay. we look forward to it. Thank you.

Esther Wang:

This is by JS Bach.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. Beautiful.

Esther Wang:

It’s hard to believe, but Baroque music in improvising is really related to jazz. And I had to-

Greg Kaster:

That’s cool.

Esther Wang:

… figure that … I haven’t figured that out yet, but it’s true.

Greg Kaster:

That was absolutely beautiful. Even with the way you were recording, it’s just absolutely beautiful. Thank you so much.

Esther Wang:

Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

And, what … I was back, I don’t know … When was that written roughly? What century is that the … 17th?

Esther Wang:

Yeah, 1700s.

Greg Kaster:

Wow, gorgeous. Is there something in particular about that piece you like?

Esther Wang:

Well, I particularly chose it because it’s a little melancholy, and some of it to me doesn’t have … I haven’t been feeling too helpful about things lately, especially about our country. And I chose this piece because it has a lot of musing and meandering, and not necessarily whining, but just kind of … it’s a little despairing.

And, I also think what’s, kind of, nice about it, is there are a few places where you can hear there’s a little bit hope. There’s a bit of hope in there, and maybe there’s some redemption for us. And, if there is that’s great, and if not, we still got music to make us feel better [crosstalk 00:36:44].

Greg Kaster:

I mean, that is literally how I felt. I felt that kind of melancholy. I was thinking as you’re playing, “Wow, what a perfect … perfect for the mood for so many of us right in the middle of this jam pandemic.” And, then just, I don’t know what they’re called, the little trills, is that what they’re called?

Esther Wang:

Yeah. Ornaments, extra frosting, the different kinds of tubes that you need to make flowers and leaves and, you know [crosstalk 00:37:10].

Greg Kaster:

Beautiful stuff. Thank you so much. What about … And, by the way, what’s the difference, do you play the harpsichord as well? You was thinking of Bach and that or not, or the [crosstalk 00:37:22]-

Esther Wang:

I do.

Greg Kaster:

You do. So, tell us a little bit about that. What the similarities and differences are between piano and harpsichord?

Esther Wang:

Well, it’s kind of … They’re like night and day, even though you’re playing the same keys basically. But harpsichord is almost like playing a guitar, because once you hit that note, there’s little quilt that just plucks that string, it’s like a guitar. And you have to know the tricks of it in order to play it expressively, otherwise it can just sound like the Adams family and it [crosstalk 00:37:57] it just sounds like no matter what I do, it’s always going to have that same twengy sound.

And, with the piano, the way that it’s developed throughout the years, that there’s so much shading, and so much volume, and drama and overtones, it just can create such different kinds of instruments. And, they’re all the piano, but some of them are more straightforward, and some of them are dramatic and romantic, and some are a little bit understated, and everybody has their taste. But for harpsichords, that also there are different kinds of Dutch and Italian.

Greg Kaster:

Sure.

Esther Wang:

But, those you have to play … you have to be imaginative. For instance, if you rolled a chord in a harpsichord, it gives you more volume. So, if you play a chord, just all the notes together on a harpsichord, because you pluck it, the notes go away really fast. So, it’s nowhere near as loud as rolling a chord on a harpsichord. So that’s how you get crescendos, or diminuendos is like just rolling or quickly rolling, or not rolling at all the chords.

And then playing a melody, you have to really use a lot of rubato. And I never thought of Baroque music as being particularly romantic, but as I started to play more harpsichord and then getting to know more about Bach and Couperin and Rameau and other composers that you have to have an imagination, or it just sounds like you’re literally twinging on a wire.

Greg Kaster:

That’s also interesting. So, do you have … what kind of piano … Are you in your office right now as we’re recording? What sort of piano do you have there?

Esther Wang:

I got two Steinways? And one is, I guess, maybe 40-years-old, maybe 40 or 50-years-old. It’s a really nice little … I think it’s an A or an M, I can’t remember. And, we also have a piano that is a new … it’s pretty new, it’s like a handful of years old. And I’m so embarrassed that I forgot the donor’s name, but it is a form … It’s an alum of Gustavus, and he bought it as a present for his wife. And she thought that it was too great a gift and they wanted to try to give it to someone that would make use of it. And we went and looked at it at one time, and [Yumiko 00:40:31] loved it so much, and he said, “Well, I’ll just give it to you.”

Greg Kaster:

And that’s your colleague, Yumiko, who’s another pianist?

Esther Wang:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

That’s really cool. I didn’t know that. What about … Do you also have a harpsichord in your office or at home?

Esther Wang:

Well, it’s right outside the door. You want me to go get it?

Greg Kaster:

Yes, please. Yeah. Speaking of home, by the way, I meant to ask this as well. So, your husband’s a musician also, right? Is it cello? I’m trying to remember.

Esther Wang:

Yes, he’s a cellist.

Greg Kaster:

And so, do you pair up at home or in public performances?

Esther Wang:

Yeah, we do a lot. This past year, well, 20 was an anniversary of Beethoven 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. And we did a lot of Beethoven recitals last year, and it was really fun.

Greg Kaster:

That’s neat. My wife Kate loves the cello, absolutely loves the cello. So, one day I’ll have to gift her with a performance by you and your husband, maybe.

Esther Wang:

Oh, that’ll be good.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’d be fun. So, what about the teaching? You’re going teach soon, your first term seminar on music and nature, which I think is the title, Music and Nature, which I think is the title, right? Music and Nature, which I’d love to hear more about, for listeners who don’t know about our first term seminar, because Davis it’s required of first year students, and there all kinds of different topics. There are certain core things all the faculty do, but the topics vary. So, tell us a little bit about that course, what it’s about.

Esther Wang:

Well, no matter if you’re watching a documentary about cooking, or you’re reading an article by a well known physician, or you’re playing video games, or you’re just watching a movie, there’s always something … music is always connected to it, and music is just, it’s connected with everything.

And, I found that, okay, well obviously there are pieces that are inspired by nature like the seasons, or Schubert writing lots of songs about winter or the babbling brook or flowers or the ocean. But then, there are so many things like when we just had the Nobel conference it made me think about the next part, or FTS, which involves Lewis Thomas. And he was a very well-known writer and physician. And he, I think, was a chancellor of Sloan Kettering for at least several years.

And, we read some things by him today, and we looked at a small video of him talking about Bach. And then we also, we read a little article on Brain Pickings online about why he’s inspiring. And, all three of those materials talked nothing about medicine, nothing.

Greg Kaster:

Nothing.

Esther Wang:

He wanted to talk about music. He wanted to talk about the music of the spheres, which is an essay in the lives of a cell. He wanted to … We actually went through the essay and I said, “Okay, how many music terms are in the here?” So, we checked off, there were like 25 to 30 music terms. And I said, that was even more than the animals that he described to making noises.

So, he talked about music and tambour and symphonies and dynamics, and tension and release, and all of the stuff that just had music, music, music terms everywhere. And I thought, “What a great way to connect to …” Of course they’re connected, but it’s a great way to connect things that you would not automatically think, “Of course, they’re connected.”

And, he talks about cells, and he talks about how they work together, or they don’t work together. There’s something about that. Like, he talks about counterpoint all the time, or he talks about ambiguity, and he’ll say, “These things are just like little bits and pieces of here and there, but eventually they become, kind of, interesting. He doesn’t talk about precision, or surgery, or having to know my new details of patients that have certain ailments, or … He doesn’t talk about that at all. What he wants to talk about is the beauty of music, and everything that I see, and everything that I observe.

And, there was a talk show where Hafner, this is a really old … like got to be in the ’80s. And he talked to him and he said, “Well, actually, I don’t really want to talk about that. I really want to talk about the nuclear arms race.” And he talked about the nuclear arms, and he didn’t talk about being a doctor. He didn’t talk to about research, he just said, “Yeah, genetic manipulation is great, and it’s going to happen at some point even more, but I really would like to talk about the nuclear arms.” All I could think of is, this is just the perfect guy to show what liberal arts is about.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, man you [crosstalk 00:45:50] … yeah.

Esther Wang:

Everything is connected to everything, and that’s why music and nature, there’s just so much that … In Parkinson’s disease and in music therapy, and in cancer, music has a place in there somewhere. It’s just a way for us to explore music in a different way, rather than, “Go practice your instrument.”

Greg Kaster:

Exactly. And, what you just said is absolutely what the liberal arts are all about, right?

Esther Wang:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Absolutely. And yeah, he’s a model of that. And your emphasis on connections, I love how … I’ve just been recording with people who I feel like recording with, to be honest with you, or name’s been suggested to me for this podcast. But, one of the themes that’s emerged, is this idea of connection.

So, I was recording with our colleague Gerry Hong of classics, and that’s all she talked about, connections. Making connections, getting suits, connections between things that we might not think are connected. And I find that I do that as a professor of history too, a teacher of history. And, I just find that so powerful.

I enjoy doing that, one, finding those connections, or seeing those connections where I didn’t see them before. And you’re also leading, right? This is a nice segue into a question I wanted to pose by way of conclusion, which is to ask you to make your pitch for studying music at Gustavus, the music major. And I know there are different varieties you can specialize within the music major, of course. Or what’s your pitch for music as a major at Gustavus?

Esther Wang:

Well, it’s challenging and rewarding, and it can be lonely, and it can be also very group oriented. And it’s, I don’t know how to describe it. I feel like the students teach me more than I teach them sometimes. Like, they’d tell me things and I think, “Wow, that’s going to help me work with you for the next 20 minutes.”

And so, it’s a … well, it’s a give and take, but having something to study one-on-one, I think, is very special. You don’t get to study a history lesson with somebody with just one person. And I wish that could happen because it’s so much fun, and you can go into so much detail, and you can say, “How would you describe that, and how would you explain that to someone who doesn’t know how to do that?” Or, what’s what’s another solution? Because that one didn’t work out so well.

And so, you can pick things apart, you can analyze, but you can also talk about why it is a certain kind of expression appropriate, or maybe not appropriate, but maybe now that we think about it, maybe it is appropriate. You can change your mind, and that’s what study is all about, is that you look at it, and then you try to recreate it, and you try to be creative with it. And I think that’s very special.

I love that sometimes when you go to a museum, and you see this whole class, and they’re trying to emulate a great work. And I love that, but at the same time, you’re not doing the exact same thing. Well, you are, but you’re playing the exact same notes that the composer wrote, and it’s abstract, but you’re making it real. And that’s what she wrote. And, I think there’s a special, kind of, karma, magic, something there that you can’t see. It appears when you start to play it. And, we don’t get to study it that way very often. I think that’s a really good way to learn.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, I agree. And boy, am I envious? I would love to do, I’ve done that just a few times a one-on-one and it’s just been such a pleasure, so much fun. The other thing, I think, I’d like to ask you, is where … I can hear someone’s go, “What am I going to do with a music major?” But, where do your majors go? Are they all in the field, and some way teaching music or performing, or does people become lawyers, doctors?

Esther Wang:

There are a lot of people that are really good pianists, and they go out into dentistry or pre-med, or pediatrics or a psychology. They go into practice, and then there are a lot of … we have a lot of music ed people that go and get these great jobs working with middle schoolers and high schoolers mostly in the state of Minnesota, but also out.

And, we have some majors that actually went out and are studying the environment with music, or that they go on into musicology, or they’re going to music therapy. Music majors can do anything, it doesn’t really matter what major you’re in. I think it prepares you, especially, because you have to work by yourself, and you have to work with other people, that’s what music does. You have to be able to work independently, and you have to be able to work with other people. You have to be able to be collaborative. And, I think, that’s a pretty specific … those are specific skills.

Greg Kaster:

Absolutely. And, if people, you and people listeners could see me, I have a mile wide smile because, yeah, majors that’s another theme of this podcast. And majors really don’t matter nowhere near to the extent that some students and parents think. And we say that about the history majors too, what can you do with a history major? What would you like? You can do anything, right? And, that’s a problem for some students, they want to know what … this leads to what? But, I think that’s the … I now I’m imagining going my dentist and having some really awesome music playing as my teeth are being cleaned or drilled [crosstalk 00:51:59] or whatever.

This has been so much fun. Thank you so much. I’ve learned a lot about you that I didn’t know. And thank you so much for that wonderful musical interlude was just beautiful. And hope to see you back on campus at some point.

Esther Wang:

Yes. Thank you [crosstalk 00:52:18].

Greg Kaster:

Well, I’ll see you in our next Zoom committee meeting, I guess, for sure.

Esther Wang:

Oh, no.

Greg Kaster:

And, by the way, you really do know you’re nuts. My goodness gracious, you brought some awesome nut collections to the first [crosstalk 00:52:31] committee meeting.

Esther Wang:

Well, you are what you eat.

Greg Kaster:

That’s true.

Esther Wang:

Yeah, we’re good.

Greg Kaster:

We are what we eat, whether we are the music we listen to, et cetera. All right, Esther, it’s been a blast. Thanks so much.

Esther Wang:

Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Take good care. Bye-bye.

Esther Wang:

Bye-bye.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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