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Student Spotlight: Jiakung Feng, U-M student pianist

Editor’s note: Isabel Park is a regular contributor to UMS Lobby and an undergraduate pianist in the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Isabel explores connections between the UMS season and student life.

igor levit
Photo: Pianist Igor Levit. By Felix Broede.

Pianist Igor Levit makes his UMS debut with a program of Beethoven, Shubert, Prokofiev, and Bach on February 6, 2016. Despite his demanding program, Levit is a relatively younger, up and coming pianist.

Much takes place behind the scenes when preparing a piece for performance, and often the audience is unaware of these aspects when listening to a performance. To get a deeper understanding of being a learner musician rather than simply a performer, I reached out to Jiakung Feng, a fellow pianist who has worked on some of the pieces on Mr. Levit’s program.


Photo: Jiakung Feng

Isabel Park: Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major is on Mr. Levit’s program for UMS. Why did you want to learn this Prokofiev piece?

Jiakung Feng: Well, I’ve always liked Prokofiev, and I’ve played some of his other works, such as Diabolical Suggestions and The Love for Three Oranges. I also played the third sonata and wanted to play one of his later ones, so I asked my teacher and he suggested the seventh one.

IP: This is undoubtedly a difficult piece to learn. How you did you approach learning it?

JK: I found the whole sonata to be challenging to understand from a musical sense and difficult to perform from a technical perspective as well. The piece is also extremely dissonant, so just from a learning perspective, it took longer for me to actually learn all the harmonies and notes. I also listened to recordings online to listen how the great pianists interpreted this work. I especially admire Richter’s rendition.

IP: Was there a section that was memorably difficult? If so, could you describe the ways in which it was challenging? How does working through these challenges fit in with your life as a musician, and also your life outside of music?

JK: I found the sections in the first movement with jumping and cascading octaves and chords difficult to learn and play accurately. There were also uncomfortable stretches (9ths) that were taxing on my hands physically. I practiced these parts by focusing on voicing to the outsides and chunking the runs into smaller bits and then joining them together after I could play the smaller sections accurately.

I think learning a piece like this teaches one how to work through a problem, which is a good skill to have for anything. Learning something like this comes with discipline and determination.

IP: Does learning new music get easier as you learn more pieces?

JK: I think it helps to have a wide range of repertoire by a specific composer because one can begin to understand the tendencies and styles of each composer, which makes learning works by the same composer easier.

For example, if you’ve played many of the Chopin Nocturnes, you might be better accustomed to adjusting the voicing, sound, and texture in a particular way that fits that set of pieces.

IP: What sets apart the first time you perform a newly learned piece? In other words, are there any unique challenges or aspects of the experience?

JK: There’s the nerves. Even if one plays for small groups of friends as a form of practicing for performance in front of a bigger audience, there’s something different about being on stage. I becomes hypersensitive, and sometimes I might hear things that I didn’t hear while practicing. It’s hard to have continuous concentration, and in the presence of a larger audience, there’s a special atmosphere and a connection to create as well.

igor levit

Photo: Igor Levit. Courtesy of the artist.

IP: Igor Levit, who’ll perform this piece with UMS, is a younger, emerging pianist (this will be his first U.S. recital tour). You are also a younger student of piano. Do you feel that where you are in your career or journey has an impact on how you study and perform?

JK: Ultimately, yes. Being a pianist in school is a lot more routine than being an independent artist. Every semester, we’re required to perform for a jury with with general guidelines, for example. As a result, there’s a specific timeline to how we prepare and goals to ensure that all the requirements are met.

Also, as students, we’re inevitably influenced a lot by our teachers’ interpretive choices. They serve as mentors and usually have direct experience with pieces that we’re learning for the first time, so in my case, my teacher’s musical ideas guide my playing quite a bit.

To me, it’s exciting to think of performance as not only a presentation but also a learning experience for the musician. I’m excited to attend pianist Igor Levit’s debut recital at UMS to witness this part of career as a pianist.