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By Sheldon Green, Special to the Forum, Published January 07 2003

Overseas for ivory keys

A young girl in China dreams of studying in America to prepare for a career as a concert pianist.

How does she make those dreams become a reality?

She surfs the Internet.

Lillian Tian-tian Liang found the music program at Concordia College in Moorhead, and her mentor, piano professor Jay Hershberger, on the Web.

At the time, Liang had just graduated from high school in Chengdu, a city of 2.5 million people in the fertile rice and sugar cane growing region of south-central China. The sprawling city is the capital of Sichuan, one of China's largest provinces.

"I connected with the Web site, and Concordia sent me CDs of the Christmas Concert and an orchestra concert. I was very impressed," Liang says. "I looked at the brochures they sent and saw a picture of Dr. Hershberger playing a Steinway. Then I knew I should come to Concordia."

Impressive player

She also drew interest from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Oberlin (Ohio) Conservatory. After an initial exchange of e-mails, Hershberger suggested Liang send him a videotape of her playing.

Hershberger was impressed immediately. "I thought her tape was terrific. I was thrilled about the possibility of working with her," he recalls.

The Concordia Music Department offered her a music performance scholarship in addition to an international student scholarship, and after another flurry of e-mails to work out details, Liang was on her way to Moorhead.

Now a sophomore, Liang, 20, has already performed three recitals on campus, and on Sunday, Jan. 12, she will participate in the Music Teachers National Association regional piano competition at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. She will play compositions by Bach, Chopin, Beethoven and Ravel, a program chosen because the selections emphasize her strengths and temperament as a player.

"Sometimes these competitions come down to whoever has the best day," Hershberger says. "Lillian is petite, so she doesn't have a 'big sound' at the piano. Her skill is her flawless technique. She has the work ethic, the passion and drive, and the natural fingering ability. Students like Lillian are really very rare."

Hershberger says he believes Liang's next step will be to go to a top graduate school or conservatory in this country.

"My goal is to become a virtuoso pianist like Dr. Hershberger," Liang says. "He is helping me so much. He is my teacher and friend."

Hershberger shares her enthusiasm. "As a teacher, it's exciting to work with a student who is so passionate about what she is doing. Having a passion for playing is absolutely crucial and vital to excel at piano. And Lillian certainly has it."

Too much practice

Hershberger says Liang spends so much time practicing, usually four to five hours a day, that she refers to the piano as her husband.

"Yes, it's true," she says. "Some days the piano treats me well. But if it's a very hard piece, sometimes the piano is not so very nice to me."

Liang's father plays the cello and he wanted his daughter to follow in his footsteps. When she was 5 years old, he gave her a small-sized cello, but after hearing a friend of her father play piano, she was instantly smitten with the instrument.

"My father agreed to get a piano for me, and the day it was brought to our home, I played it all day," she recalls.

At Concordia, Liang spends most of her time in Hvidsten Hall of Music, either practicing on her own, rehearsing with performance groups or taking lessons from Hershberger.

"We have a good relationship," he says. "She takes the piano very seriously. I don't have to tell her to practice. In fact, it's just the opposite. I've had to encourage her to go see a movie or hang out with friends just to relax and get away from the piano for a day."

If there is stress in their relationship, it is from Liang's impatience to begin playing the great piano pieces immediately. She's also concerned that Hershberger is being too nice to her.

"He always says my playing is excellent, but I wonder, as a student, how can I be excellent all the time?" she asks. "I think, 'Does he really mean that or is he just being nice to me?' "

Piano American style

Hershberger agrees that he errs on the side of being too nice, but says Liang has been used to a stern, very formal "old school" style of teaching.

"It's the American style, and certainly Concordia's style, to take a more friendly, personal approach to teaching. Lillian comes from the Chinese conservatory tradition where students are taught to learn a large repertoire. She came here already knowing all the big piano concertos by Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Brahms."

Hershberger says that Liang's knowledge of repertoire is an excellent base to build upon, and that she is already a technically finished pianist.

"But she's only 20 years old and there is an artistic maturation process that you cannot rush," he says. "How she plays now is different than how she'll play at age 30 or 40. Lillian is so ambitious that she wants to work on the pieces now that she'll play best when she's 40 or older."

At this point in her career, Hershberger believes Liang has come to the right place.

"American colleges teach a generally eclectic piano style, meaning we teach from a variety of perspectives, and we sample freely from many schools of thought to produce a well-rounded pianist," he says. "By contrast, some of the conservatories can be fairly narrow and teach only a single style of playing."

Concordia's liberal arts curriculum is another bonus for developing Liang's career and her personal life. Hershberger says she's already learned to think outside the four walls of her practice room, and to blend her passion for playing piano with the versatility that can be found in a liberal arts curriculum.

"I keep telling her that the great artists of the 20th century were very well-rounded people," Hershberger says. "They read extensively and were interested in ideas and events beyond the piano. The great artists were very cultured people."

Difficult adjustment

That idea didn't appeal to Liang initially.

She only wanted to play the piano. Her first year at Concordia was a difficult adjustment. Her English skills were weak, but have improved significantly. Her biggest problem was becoming a complete college student -- not just a piano student at a college.

"My first semester I didn't do any homework. I didn't know it was my responsibility to do it," she says. "Finally, my teachers asked me for my work, and I didn't sleep at all the last week of school trying to study and write papers."

Liang now understands the importance of not cutting class to practice and she earned her first A last summer in a classical Greek mythology course.

Since coming to Concordia, Liang has discovered an interest in religion and became a Christian after being baptized at First United Methodist Church in Fargo. She says religion is discouraged in China, and her parents seldom go to the Buddhist temple or practice religion at home.

Because she is pursuing a degree in piano performance, she is able to freely sample from the curriculum and she anticipates taking more religion classes to satisfy her growing curiosity and interest.

Gazing out a window of the Music Department recently at a scene unknown to her until coming to Moorhead -- snow softly falling on evergreen trees, Liang says she feels comfortable at Concordia. "This is home for me now. It's so quiet and peaceful. It's a good place to practice -- and I get to play every day on a Steinway!"

Sheldon Green is the writer in the Office of Communications at Concordia College in Moorhead.