In a triumph of poetic scheduling, Piano Day is celebrated on the eighty-eighth day of every year. So today, March 29, there’ll be events all over the planet in honor of the eighty-eight-key wonder that has produced so much amazing music for more than three centuries.
“The piano should be our best friend,” says classical virtuoso Lang Lang, whose Piano Book album comes out, appropriately enough, on Piano Day. “The more you practice, the more you know about the instrument. The instrument speaks more intimately to you, and you will feel more. It’s just like friendship: When you’re always talking to each other, you will have a better connection. It’s exactly the same with piano.”
In celebration of Piano Day, we recently spoke to Lang Lang, George Winston, and other pianists about their formative experiences with the instrument.
Magic and imagination
“He played with the most incredible touch, and with the most magical pedals and the most imaginative sound,” says Lang Lang of Vladimir Horowitz’s performance of Schumann’s Träumerei (Dreaming) in Moscow in 1986, one of Lang Lang’s most cherished piano memories. “And he played in a very different way every time. If you want to hear a great concert, you need to feel the complete diversity of emotions in one piece. And also the stage presence is so important—he owned the piece.”
George Winston, the legendary pianist who pretty much invented his own genre of instrumental music, remembers how the piano first pulled him in. “I started playing the organ when I was eighteen in 1967, inspired by The Doors,” he says. “In 1971, when I heard stride pianist Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller’s recordings from the late 1920s and mid-1930s, I immediately switched to solo piano.”
Winston, whose album Restless Wind comes out May 3, recalls the way the piano’s possibilities informed the development of his own influential style. “I loved the piano sustain,” he says of the instrument’s unique timbre when drawing out notes, “which I liked better than the sustain of organ or strings or any other kind of sustain that any instrument has. This is a big part of the melodic folk piano style that I came up with in 1971.”
Grammy-winning Latin jazzman Arturo O’Farrill, whose latest project, Fandango at the Wall, examines the intersection of Mexican and American music, has his own relationship with the instrument that’s been his lifeblood for the last four decades. “Besides the obvious reason that is commonly given for loving the piano—having an orchestra at your fingertips—I also love the tactile feeling of holding a chord or a scale by the hand,” says the bandleader and composer. “I feel physically the sensation of handling music as if I were shaping the abstract with the concrete.”
Roots in rock and jazz
Veteran Memphis rocker Van Duren, whose career is currently being celebrated by the documentary Waiting: The Van Duren Story and its soundtrack, actually began on guitar before heeding the piano’s call. “I taught myself to play by transposing from guitar,” he explains, “so my ‘technique’ is puzzling to actual piano players. That said, the piano has been an amazing songwriting tool for me since my first 1950s Hohner Pianet at seventeen years old. It’s a very physical thing, almost like drums in its effort.”
Van Duren cites The Beatles‘ “Lady Madonna,” Traffic‘s “Glad” and “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys,” and David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” as some of his favorite piano-driven songs. “But,” he says, “probably the most mind-blowing in my haphazard journey in piano land was the work of Brian Wilson and his use of juxtaposing different bass notes for a song’s chords. I know he was not the originator of that concept, but Brian was the first person I heard do that. Revelatory to this day.”
Cutting-edge Paris-born jazzman Dan Tepfer, whose new album, Natural Machines, drops on May 17, is the winner of multiple piano-oriented awards. He likes to look at the instrument as something more than merely wood and wire. “I fell in love with the piano when I realized you needed to be a bit of a magician to play it,” says Tepfer. “Most instruments have some kind of link to the human voice, which is the original musical instrument and the greatest of them all. Saxophones work on breath, and the sound they make is shaped by the player’s larynx. Violins mimic the breath with the bow. Even guitars can add vibrato to a tone after it’s been plucked. But with piano, once you’ve struck a key, there’s nothing you can do about it except release it.
“It’s really, when you look at it, not much more than a big typewriter,” Tepfer observes. “And yet, in skillful hands, it can sing almost as much as a voice. There’s something ineffable about the challenge of making that happen—something in the realm of poetry—that has always turned me on. It keeps me coming back to the keyboard again and again to see if, on a particular day, I can still make it happen.”