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The pianist’s body

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WHEN we watch a classical music performance, what we see is a union between human and instrument. Few people do that better than piano prodigy Cecile Licad, who passed audition at the Curtis Institute of Music at 12 and had been one of the youngest recipients of the Leventritt Gold Medal in 1981. Now in her 60s, Ms. Licad talked to BusinessWorld about how the pianist’s body performs, in light of her March 19 concert, Cecile Licad at the Met: A Women’s Month Concert, held at The Metropolitan Theater in Manila.

Asked what a piano demands from its player, she said, “From my feet, to my hands, to my head, to my heart.”

But first, the concert: conducted by Gregorz Nowak, Ms. Licad performed with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, who opened the concert with Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, Op. 73 in D major. The program said, “The D-Major Symphony seems to reflect the composer’s relaxed state of mind during the happy summer of 1877.” After an intermission, Ms. Licad appeared on stage, playing, in concert with the orchestra, Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 23 in B-flat minor on a Fazioli. After that, Ms. Licad appeared on stage for three encores: she dedicated a piece to late Rustan’s matriarch Zenaida “Nedy” Tantoco (namely, Schumann’s Widmung), a piece by her great-uncle, composer Francisco Buencamino, and Chopin’s Minute Waltz.

During a group interview at Ms. Tantoco’s home in Forbes Park two days after the concert, Ms. Licad discussed why those pieces were chosen. She played the piece by her great-uncle because it had been used in movies shown at the Metropolitan Theater during its heyday; she picked the Minute Waltz because the conductor that evening was Polish. As for the dedication to Ms. Tantoco, she said, “In any room, I always have the most beautiful flowers, and it’s always from Tita Nedy.” In fact, asked about the floral-appliqued black dress she wore and where she got it, she said, “Rustan’s! Rustan’s is the best. What can I say?”

As for the Tchaikovsky piece she selected to play, she said, “I feel like I’m ready to tackle it again. I feel like — sometimes you just feel like, ‘I want to eat this.’ I want to build some kind of muscle again.”

THE PIANO AND HER BODY“It requires a lot. It requires physical strength. It requires sharp reflexes, and it requires a soul of a… a hot soul!,” she said with laughter, describing what that particular Tchaikovsky piece requires of her.

She recalled teaching a masterclass once, and hearing a student perform, she said, “Can you put, like a mainit na ano (something hot) in your ass?” Then she laughed. “I’m so sorry, but that’s really the way I talk. People don’t know what’s in my head when I’m playing. They think it’s like something so intellectual, whatever. But sometimes I have to make kurot (pinch) myself; since my mother’s not there. I would do anything — I would eat a hot pepper if I’m nervous. And then I would be like, ‘Ay, ang anghang (that’s hot)!’ Then I’d be like, ‘Yes!’

“You have to feel a burn in your butt!”

Ms. Licad talked about how her body works with a piano. “I talk to it. It’s like a pet. ‘You better deliver,’” she said. “I don’t care about any piano that I will play, but it has to work. It’s a machine. It’s usually the player who will make it alive. But it helps to have a piano technician.”

Then she talks about practicing and rehearsals, for which her fingers and feet come to play. “I have to talk to my fingers,” she said. “I would change my fingering to what I feel at that moment. That’s why I practice. So that all my fingers are independent.”

“When I’m playing — you’re like an actor. I have to feel the teleserye (TV soap opera). I call it like a novel, inside, so that I can convey it to the public. If I don’t feel anything — but not only feel — it goes to the fingers. It’s like channeling, really.”

And her feet! “People don’t know that, but the pedaling of the piano is the most important.”

MAINTAINING HER BODYAs with any person who uses their body to work, it is toned and perfected by practice.

Ms. Licad talks about how she practices, and how she always begins from scratch. Here, she isn’t the child prodigy traveling the world as a teen, or given awards by presidents: she has a Presidential Medal of Merit from the late President Corazon Aquino, a Pamana sa Pilipino Award from Mrs. Aquino’s son, President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, and former First Lady Imelda Marcos held the phone for her so the pianist Van Cliburn could hear her play when she had turned 12 (a story she recounted to Mrs. Marcos’ son, now-President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.). When practicing, she is always a student.

“The practicing is the hardest. Performing for me — it’s also hard. I’m not going to pretend that… but it’s more the process, the practicing process. What fingerings I should use, maybe I use this, but at the concert — it’s hard to explain,” she said. “I’m learning it totally from scratch. That’s how I learn. I don’t listen to recordings. I’m not an ear, like I can play whatever I hear. I relearn from scratch. I will look at the notes very, very slowly, carefully, and then I hear.

“Nobody can recognize me practicing sometimes. That’s why I like to be private when I’m practicing,” she said, saying that when she’s practicing very slowly, she’s sometimes mistaken as a beginner — even by herself. “In fact, I always tell myself that: ‘beginner ka lang. Umpisa ka (you’re just a beginner. You’re just at the start).’ I would tell myself I don’t know how to play piano.”

But all bodies are mortal, and they weaken and, well, stop working at some point. She counts that her career is now 50 years old, but then she pointed out: “One of my teachers debuted in Carnegie Hall, he was already 97.”

“All my teachers — their best playing is at 80-something,” she said. “It’s just different — if you have a good foundation, you can always reinvent. Maybe if ever I lost my hands, I can still play with my elbow,” she said, laughing.

How then, does she maintain all the working parts of her body so when it meets a piano, it constitutes a perfect union? Surprisingly, the answer is just doing everything else. “You know what I do? I just do other things. I go to the grocery. I organize my things.”

“I’m not particular with my hands at all. Except with knives; cutting onions. That’s very scary. Especially if it’s slippery. There’s an angle. I watch the YouTube stuff, the cooks. You have to have a sharp knife, because if you don’t have a sharp knife, the more you will cut yourself.”

She even gave us a recipe for her clothes’ cleaning spray: Everclear, a grain alcohol bottled at up to 95% (“Whenever I buy it at the liquor store, they would be like, ‘You’re not going to drink this, are you? You’re going to die.’”), mixed with either eucalyptus, peppermint, or tea tree oil. ‘Especially, [since] I smoke. In America, everybody’s smelling you,” she said, sniffing. “‘She’s a smoker. Let’s get out of here.’”

REACHING A PEAKIf her teachers played their best at 80, Ms. Licad in her 60s still has many years to go. Asked if she’s already reached her peak, she said, “I don’t think we’ll ever reach a peak. We will always be in our peak. The last concert has to be your peak. For me, every concert is a peak.

“You can never be confident. You can’t rest on your laurels. I still keep going, and learn a new horizon of another composer, or something I haven’t even tried.

“Maybe I’ll become an actor.” — Joseph L. Garcia

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