Keys please: the Grace Fong masterclass

Fong teaches Kyoko Ikeda and Sebastian Stern. Sophia Hoffman | Lariat

Kirill Gliadkovski, a piano instructor at Saddleback College, hosted a free masterclass with professional piano player Grace Fong in the McKinney Theatre on Feb. 5. 

The experience was observational, meant for anyone willing to learn technical notes on piano playing and the audience was diverse in age.

Upon entrance, the audience was provided with a QR code for the Masterclass program. The QR code contained information about the masterclass and the instructor, Fong. 

Fong is a prize-winning pianist and the Director of Piano Studies at Chapman University. Fong’s many academic achievements include a full-ride scholarship, an award in music and receiving a master’s and doctoral degree. The accomplished woman also made an appearance on BBC and PBS television. 

Fong’s masterclass featured four of Gliadkovski’s Saddleback students each performing an individual piano piece up on stage. Fong would then join them on stage and give them advice on how to improve their piece and become a more skillful pianist, overall. The students were miraculously gifted and able to pick up Fong’s advice quickly.

The first performance was a duet by Kyoko Ikeda and Sebastian Stern. They performed Sonata in C Major and Hungarian Dance No. 8 in A minor. Even as Ikeda rigorously turned the page of their sheet music, Ikeda and Stern were in sync. It shocked Fong and the audience to discover that these duettists have played together for just two weeks.

The first thing Fong pointed out when she went on stage was that the players have different styles — Stern has a more direct attack while Ikeda has more of a delicate technique. Fong helped them to “blend.” She noted that it is okay to add extra accents every once in a while, but otherwise “stay true to the composer and stay true to the score.”

“Visualization is important,” Fong said. She told them to imagine what the music would convey in a movie scene and what other instruments would be involved. Fong’s teaching methods include hand gestures, creative language (in addition to technical terms) and vocalizing in order to match pitch.

Next, Ikeda performed her solo, Prelude No. 6 Dans le style et le mouvement d’un Cakewalk. After she was finished, Fong had her describe the background of her piece. 

She continued to correct Ikeda on her finger placement and pointed out the composer’s notes provided with the sheet music. One thing Fong repeatedly encouraged was exploring different arts and genres such as dance, musical theater and playing different instruments.

Wendy Wang, a high school freshman, performed Etude No. 6 in A minor from Grandes etudes de Paganini without sheet music. After watching Wang’s hands dance across the keys, Fong started off with basic notes: clarity, voicing and pedal practice.

Fong explained to the audience that “voicing” is bringing out a certain note on a chord more than the others. She had Wang demonstrate how different the sound can be when she used the pedal versus when she did not. 

Since Wendy’s piece was long, Fong tried to get to the root of each area of the performance that needed correction. She repeatedly pointed out the editor and composer’s notes.

“Music is subjective,” Fong said. “And that’s what makes it difficult.”  

Fong explained that sometimes the editors put in specific finger placements for playing a specific score. However, she recommended using finger placement that you are most comfortable with because everyone is different.

Above all else, Fong helped Wang to focus on her technique. She pointed out that Wang’s left hand liked to compete with her right hand, but helped her to understand that the release is just as important as the attack, so she should try to focus on keeping both hands at an even stance. 

Everyone appeared to be impressed to see Fong catch onto details that were unrecognizable to the audience. She noted that Wang had trouble using her pinky finger when she played. Fong immediately fixed this by telling her to use the side of her finger instead of the pointer.

Steven Zhao was the closing pianist who played Estampes III. Jardins sous pluie (Gardens in the Rain). Fong didn’t have many notes for improvement other than to “breathe and ease into things.”

“When you’re an interpreter, it’s important to be convincing,” Fong said. 

Even though Zhao’s piece was evidently advanced and was played practically seamlessly, she didn’t hesitate to assist with any missing detail. There was one part of the song where Fong described Zhao as playing “vertical.” The audience didn’t seem to understand what she meant until she had him play the piece twice to compare. The first time she had him play the piece “vertically,” like a climb. The second time she had him play “horizontally,” like a crawl. There was a clear difference. “Crawl, like a spider,” Fong said.

Fong gave recommendations and advice. She recommended trying new things and recording yourself to see how you play and what you can fix. Fong likes to use hand gestures as well as similes and comparisons to help students visualize. 

At one point, she explained that adding extra notes to music can be a good and bad thing. “It’s like chicken broth,” Fong said. She explained how chicken broth tastes bland on its own but once you add other things to it, it tastes grand. However, if you add in too much, it will start to get funky.

Q&A with Grace Fong

After the masterclass, the Lariat spoke with Fong about her experience with piano and advice for the future.

Why did you start playing piano in the first place?

Music runs in my family. My mom teaches piano as well. So, she was always playing so I wanted to as well. I started when I was almost three, so I was always just crawling over to the piano and trying to play.

What is your favorite piece?

Oh gosh, that one is so hard. That’s impossible. I don’t have a favorite piece, and if I do, it changes all the time. I just love everything!

How long have you been playing? You said since you were three?

Yeah, we’ll just say that. Since I was three. Yeah… technically two years, nine months, I gave my first recital. But, um… yep. Before three.

How long have you been teaching at Chapman University? Have you taught anywhere else?

Fifteen years. And yeah, I taught at Claremont Graduate school. I taught master and doctoral students. And I do master classes everywhere in the world… in Asia, in Dubai, Europe…

What brought you to Saddleback?

Oh, Kirill! Dr. Gliadkovski. I’ve known him for a while and he’s just a wonderful pianist and we kind of developed a relationship — he’s actually doing a class at Chapman next month — and so he invited me here to do this class.

What sort of advice do you have for aspiring piano players?

I would say to… kind of, um, what was that saying? Like, ‘the more you practice you’ll make it.’ I think the field has really changed and I would recommend that pianists get the tools to be a versatile pianist. So, learn non-classical styles. Learn to play the keyboard, the organ, the harpsichord. Play with different genres. Collaborate with people in dance and theatre and design and all kinds of things to really open your palette in music. So, I think it’s important to kind of, yeah, just have all the kinds of tools to be — I call it, like, a total pianist — like a versatile pianist versus just the strict classical piano. Yeah.