Andrea Lam on the most valuable advice she received in music school
Born in Sydney, and now residing in the thumping cosmopolitan heart of New York City, pianist, recitalist and chamber musician Andrea Lam made her orchestral debut with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the tender age of thirteen. Introduced to the piano by her mother at an early age, Lam fell in with the piano not only for the instrument’s grand form and hypnotic sounds, but for its ability to nurture both the logical and creative sides of her brain; be it through the challenge of understanding the structural components of a piece to letting her unbridled imagination run free through the pages of her sheet music.
Ahead of her upcoming performance as part of our Wood, Metal and Vibrating Air Piano Recital Series, we spoke to Lam about the most valuable advice she received in music school, why she can’t get enough of Schumann, and her dream of starting a pho restaurant and nearby chips bar in her New York neighbourhood.
MLIVE: In June you’ll be performing an intimate recital at the Robert Blackwood Hall. Can you tell us about the work and what we can expect?
Andrea Lam: My program explores very different worlds. It starts in the wonderful, romantic and fantastical world of Robert Schumann. His Arabesque is one of my favourite pieces and his Kreisleriana is inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fictional character Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler: an eccentric, manic depressive and wild musician. It is easy to see how Schumann identified so strongly with this character. Next we move very far away in time and space to Vivian Fung’s Glimpses. This music is inspired by Balinese music and dance and uses light piano preparation to create sounds like low drones, wooden percussion and snow. The program ends with more dancing of a different flavour with Ginastera’s Suite de Danzas Criollas.
MLIVE: What drew you to the piano and to classical music?
Andrea Lam: I was lucky that my mum played the piano a little, so I heard the piano and classical music from a very young age and was curious about it. Like most kids, it was just one of the things that I did. As my relationship with music deepened, I found it fascinating on many levels. The logical part of me liked figuring out the structure of a piece and how to manoeuvre my fingers to play the notes. The unbridled child’s imagination in me loved making up stories and characters to go with the music. Even now, listening to and playing music speaks to a deeper part of me than anything else.
‘The unbridled child’s imagination in me loved making up stories and characters to go with the music.’
MLIVE: You hold degrees from the Yale School of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. What values did your teachers instill in you, and what teachings have you found to be the most instrumental to your practice?
Andrea Lam: As a classical musician you spend many hours with your teacher. They ideally teach you more than just notes; they teach you how to express yourself, how to understand the vastly varied worlds of composers, how to make colours and shapes, and sometimes, my teachers have acted as a close friends and advisers. All of my teachers gave me a lot of freedom in my playing and always encouraged me to find my own mode of expression rather than telling me how it should be.
MLIVE: You made your orchestral debut with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the tender age of 13. Were there any moments where you second guessed your ambition to be a professional pianist?
Andrea Lam: Yes! When I made my orchestral debuts at 13 I was a very serious student and only had wild fantasies about becoming a professional pianist in the way that one dreams about being an astronaut, or Superman, or an Olympic medalist—never really thinking that would be my career. I do love music and playing the piano but I have to say that now I’m living the reality of being a professional pianist, being a classical musician is a very strange profession… I used to fantasise about the idea of a nine-to-five job that you could leave on nights and weekends and forget about, just because that was so foreign to me. But now I feel very lucky to play music and make a living doing it, as difficult as it is sometimes!
MLIVE: If you weren’t a pianist, what would you be?
Andrea Lam: I have no idea. I love word games and puzzles, but I don’t know many people who have made careers out of that. I also love food and have been dreaming of starting a Pho restaurant in my neighbourhood and a chips place that uses beef tallow instead of oil. (I have serious cravings for Pho and good chips, both of which I’d love to have close by). On a more practical note, when I left high school I moved to Yale to pursue musical studies, but I had also applied and gotten into combined law degrees in Australia. I guess I would maybe have been a lawyer if I weren’t a pianist but that seems unfathomable to me now.
MLIVE: Who is your favourite composer and why?
Andrea Lam: There are so many amazing composers and we’re spoiled for choice. I have to admit that Schumann speaks to my soul in a way that no other composer does. There is something so intensely personal about his music—his expression of ‘innig’ and melancholy goes beyond words, and it’s tossed in there with spurts of craziness, wild imagination, flights of fantasy, and all sorts of weird and wonderful characters.