Behind the piano: Elisabeth Tsung

Behind the piano: Elisabeth Tsung

Today some parts of the world celebrates Christmas (not me though, since out big celebration in Sweden was yesterday). And during this Christmas I will honor the women Behind the piano! I get a lot of submissions for this blog, and the vast majority of the artists I listen to are male. So, this is the first post in a series where I honor the women Behind the piano!

To start of I introduce you to the fantastic piano player and composer Elisabeth Tsung who earlier this year released her first song Sebastian’s waltz. Let’s get to know the person Behind the piano!

Where are you from? And where do you live?
I was born and raised in New York City, and I’m still living here. 

How long have you been playing the piano, and do you play other instruments as well?
I took piano lessons as a kid, and stopped in my teenage years. But I’ve been seriously playing for the last two years. I also play violin. 

Tell us about how you started playing music. 
I’m primarily a violinist. I’ve been playing for more than 20 years and studied violin performance in university. I was struggling with carpal tunnel syndrome and severe muscle strain in college, and during my last year, I got into a car accident that severely hindered my playing. As time went on, the pain got worse and eventually, I thought I had to give up playing music completely. 

After a few years of not playing anything at all, I found an old keyboard in my childhood home and started experimenting with it. Somehow, playing the piano lessened the pain I had experienced with violin and I was able to build up a new routine. If I were to guess, I’d say it’s because with violin I had to hold up an instrument for hours. With piano, even though there’s still strain playing the keys, working with gravity gave me the advantage of playing more comfortably. Being able to play piano was such an amazing solace for me because the accident gave me so much turmoil, both emotionally and physically. Over the years, I tried substituting violin with different art forms, like photography and poetry, but it was never the same. Practicing piano became my source of comfort and helped me through some dark nights of the soul. It was the closest thing to playing violin, yet it was also more wondrous because it was new and I was so driven to play music again. 

How long have you been making piano music?
The last two years I solely played piano, and this year, with the help of an amazing physical therapist I was able to pick up the violin again. Then the pandemic and quarantine happened in the US, and I started experimenting with composing my own music. That’s where “To Return Is but a Dream” began. 

Tell us something about that moment you realized you could make songs yourself!
I’d be playing random things either on the violin or piano (and I’ve been doing this ever since I was a kid). I realized I could make songs myself when my friends would ask me what I was humming around them.

What are your favorite artists in this “piano genre”?
Lately I’ve been really into Joep Beving’s work, and I’m amazed that after 1 year of playing piano seriously he was able to write and record a whole album. Growing up, I idolized Martha Argerich and Helene Grimuad, and Olafur Arnalds (which I’ve noticed is a favorite on this blog!) and Dustin O’Halloran are my top contemporary pianists/composers. Rachmaninov and Shostakovich will always hold a special place in my heart as well.  

Is there one song which you play over and over again as soon as you sit down by a piano? Your own or someone else’s? 
Yes! Literally each time I sit down at a piano (either my own or someone else’s), I break into Arabesque No. 1 by Debussy. It’s my favorite piano piece in the world.

What rules (in making music) needs to be broken?
I think when it comes to musicians, there tends to be a sense of pettiness and competitiveness towards one another, even if it’s felt on an internal level. Everyone is human and makes mistakes from time to time. Pointing those out is just unnecessary and cruel. We’re all on our own journey, and there are audiences for everyone out there.   

How do you record your music?
I slowly started creating a space for myself in my tiny apartment to record my music. I was inspired after I read all the other Behind the Piano studio setups. 

Whats your take on sampled instruments?
I didn’t know much about sampled instruments until I read your blog, but then I did some research and started playing with them! As a violinist, I was so surprised at the quality that’s out there. It’s incredible how music has fused with technology. 

The last question is asked by my 6 year old son:
Where do all your songs come from?
Melodies tend to come into my head the minute I wake up, and I’d jump out of bed and write them down before I forget, even before I sit down and play. 

Thank you so much for this Elisabeth!

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