Identical twin sisters Susan and Sarah Wang (Susan is older by three minutes) have been playing piano together since the age of seven.
They recently completed their Konzert Exam studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Rostock, Germany, and have subsequently been playing, and winning awards, all over the world.
Though originally from New Jersey, they currently live in Berlin and Schwerin.
Ying Zhu: How do you prepare for a performance, or practice in general? How much of your time is spent practicing together versus apart?
Susan: First, we learn the notes separately, which means we spend a lot of time practicing alone until we have our own part down. Then we start rehearsing. Usually the first rehearsal is a huge mess! As we get closer to a concert date we spend less time doing our own work and more time playing with each other.
Sarah: When we start rehearsing a new piece together, we learn about the musical concept that the other developed when she worked separately. Then we figure out how we want it to work together. We rehearse two or three days a week, during weekends. We try to find interpretations that we agree on, and then the rest of the week when we're alone again, we each practice according to the interpretation we decided on.
Lebhaft from "six Impromptus, Op66" by Schumann
How did you decide on the move to Germany? What was it like to adapt to a European country after growing up in New Jersey and Manhattan?
Susan: We didn't know we were going to Germany, even six months before we moved there. We got the recommendation from our former piano teacher, Dr. Dmitri Rachmanov. He thought it would be good to get to know another culture, another style and to see the European scene. We auditioned for a two-piano program at Rostock. It's the only school in the world that offers a diploma for two-piano music. So we moved there. It was difficult in the beginning because we didn't know the language that well. It took a while but I think I've adjusted to the lifestyle. Afterwards, I moved out to Berlin so I could see more of the modern scene. Moving there was also a better change, because Rostock was not very international. Living in Germany is inspiring. It's very different from living in the States.
Sarah: We thought it would just be for two years, then we stayed on for the Konzert Exam program, which is the highest music performance degree there. This will be our sixth year living in Germany. We like the people and the culture. We have gotten used to the European lifestyle and have a more German concept of things. Of course we miss the States and we're very happy to visit New York again and again.
Max Bruch Two Piano Concerto First Movement
Susan mentioned the recommendation to experience another culture and be in another country. How do you think that has helped you in your music and personal growth?
Sarah: Germany is at the root of many classical traditions and they have a lot to offer there because the tradition runs so deep. You recognize how important it is to their culture just by how much is going on and how much they are willing to fund classical performances and education. The general public, who go to pop and rock concerts, also go to classical concerts. They take it very seriously as a part of their lifestyle.
What elements make for a good live performance?
Susan: I still worry about my memory and technique. I want it to be flawless. I like it when I surprise myself during a performance with something innovative, or more personal. Sometimes I practice so much that things become routine. If I'm able to let go of all the worries and go on stage and perform with a little bit more personality, then I'm proud because that is pretty hard to do.
Sarah: I think it's important to be excited about the program that we're playing. Now that we are on the professional stage, most of the time we can choose what we want to play and we choose what we love. Something that I can't control is the energy level of the audience. We take so much from that. It's important that we connect to them. If their curiosity is there, then their interest is there. Somehow I can feel when an audience is involved or happy and that in turn gives me energy.
Schubert Sonate in B-Dur D 617 (Sonata in Bb Major D. 617)
How does the audience respond differently based on where you're playing?
Sarah: I commit better to a smaller audience, ranging from fifty people to about three hundred. It's on a more personal level. In smaller concerts, the people who come are there to enjoy the music and not just because the performer is a big name or it's some big competition. Most of them respond to us really well. Two-piano music is not so popular; it's rare to see it. For them it's new and it's always surprising which pieces they like. Sometimes we'll talk about the pieces before the concert. I think they like that because they know what to listen for.
Susan: I like the idea of playing in a really big hall for a lot of people. I know I actually perform better with a big group but mostly because once the lights dim, it becomes darkness and I feel like I'm alone. It can be nerve-wracking knowing there's so many people there but for some reason it's easier for me to imagine the darkness. I think it has to do with adrenaline.
Do you feel like there is a difference between audiences in the US and Germany?
Susan: I feel like Americans are a little warmer in their reception. In Germany, people don't do as much standing ovation and they don't go backstage to talk to the performers. If they want to show their appreciation they clap. They'll keep coming back to concerts and become regulars. That's how you know if you have fans. When I perform in the States, people come up to me and tell me they enjoyed it. That's a very warm reception. In Germany I had to learn that they react differently.
Faure, Dolly Suite, Berceuse
How does your close relationship affect your performing? In what ways do you balance each other out? Does "twin telepathy" play a role?
Sarah: I think it simplifies and complicates a lot of things for us. It simplifies things because we come from the same background. We have the same training so our concepts of music are very similar. At rehearsals we can say one or two phrases and we know what the other one means. That's a good advantage of being twins. In some ways, we're too similar. I think it's important that we develop ourselves individually so that we can bring our own characters and ideas to the team and not just be a two-headed character [laughs].
Susan: I'm going to go the other way and say that even though we're twins, there are a lot of ways in which we're almost opposites. It's like that concept "two minds are better than one." We have two different ideas to choose from. We have a lot of arguments during rehearsals because we have differing opinions, but they balance each other out because if we were too similar, our playing would be flat.
Do you have an unspoken language?
Sarah: Yes. I think we can understand moods and looks without talking about them. There's always a hidden message whenever we say something to each other, especially in rehearsals. We misread it quite often [laughs]. I mean we have so much history there's bound to be a whole volcano of stuff.
How often do you fight and who wins?
Susan: I would say I win! We fight every other rehearsal. Sometimes we have awesome rehearsals and when we play, everything just comes together. We're patient with each other and we make so much progress in half an hour. Then in the next rehearsal, we just go off on each other. What could have been a half hour of happy rehearsals turns into three hours of yelling. Whoever is calmer at the end tends to be the winner.
Sarah: Susan wins a lot because I get agitated much more easily.
Do you have a favorite composition style?
Sarah: I like the composers who write with very light textures like Hubert, Mozart and Ravel. Their texture is transparent.
Susan: I like the French composers. Right now we are starting to play a lot of American music and I find that very enjoyable. Gershwin, Barber and Bernstein. It looks difficult but these things are fun to play because they're so natural.
Do you usually agree on fingering and do you take suggestions from each other?
Sarah: We offer suggestions but they're not always taken [laughs]. Even though we're twins, our hand structures are slightly different. Sometimes I use my fifth finger for something and Susan prefers using the fourth for the same passage. We understand that our hands are different.
Susan: I find her fingers weird.
Sarah plays Debussy
How do you resolve a dispute or a disagreement in music interpretation? Do you ever use a coin toss?
Susan: No, it turns out our interpretations are similar but we focus on different aspects. In the end we choose what we find the most convincing. If I have an idea that I know I can do well and Sarah can do well, then we do that. If she has a different idea, but I can't understand it, it wouldn't make sense for us to try it. We both have to be convinced by the same idea. Recording it can be a good idea because then we can both listen to our playing objectively.
Sarah: Sometimes we might choose one [interpretation] and say, "we'll do this one for this concert and the next time if we want to try the other one, we'll do the other one".
Susan Plays Ravel, Miroirs, Alborada del Gracioso
When being part of a duo, is your own style compromised or do you take turns complementing each other?
Sarah: It's a balance. It depends on the piece. For the passages I play on my own, I have freedom and Susan advises me. She won't tell me exactly how to play my cadenza, but she'll suggest ideas. We're more open to each other's ideas when it comes to solos because in the ensembles we have to agree.
Susan: I don't think my style gets compromised. In two-piano playing there are different kinds of ensembles. There are times when we play the same thing and we have to match. There are other times when one of us is the accompaniment and the other one is the melody. That's when you have all the freedom.
Sarah: The person who is leading gets to shine. We leave it to each of our personalities to bring it out differently. This makes for a more colorful performance.
What was the most important way that your talent was nurtured from youth?
Sarah: Our parents were supportive from the beginning. Kids don't like to practice all the time so they were a bit strict but it wasn't forced. We both like to do well. They offered a supportive environment, the opportunity to come to New York for concerts and to be exposed to a variety of performances. We listened to classical music at home and we were immersed in the culture.
Tell us about your teachers and the most valuable lessons you've learned from each one.
Susan: Our first teacher was Dmitri Rachmanov. We studied with him from when we were seven or eight until we graduated from high school. He was wonderful in teaching us the basics. Everyone after that complimented how solid our playing was. He had a romantic style, which I liked and still think I have. He also gave us performance opportunities because it takes a lot of experience to get comfortable on stage.
Then came Dr. Louis Nagel at the Music University in Michigan. Nagel focused on the big picture. We worked on structure and on making sure that the piece as a whole would hold together well, and that we understood the background to our pieces.
With Dr. Marc Silverman at Manhattan School of Music, I learned the importance of precision in my technique, and solidified my approach to the keyboard. Sometimes in music, we get carried away with the emotional part that we forget that playing the piano is like a sport, where we have to train and hone our skills to a very high level.
The Stenzls were our last teachers – "two-piano" teachers. They taught us about the repertoire for four hands. They were the ones that brought our artistry to the next level. They're the ones who incorporated our life into the music. With them, everything became an inspiration. They made us have more fun at the piano. At many of our lessons we would end up just laughing, they brought that to us.
I think studying in Manhattan was really great for me because of living among so many musicians and artists. I learned the competitiveness of the classical world. It was a good experience because you have to know how tough it is to be in this field. That's what I learned in New York.
Nussknacker Teil 8 Finale
Can you describe how composers, other pianists, non-musical figures and each other influenced your growth as musicians?
Susan: So far we have only really worked with one living composer. He is a young German composer who was studying at Rostock. He wanted to compose a duo piece for us. I was really happy to collaborate because we had a say in how it would turn out. It's interesting to get feedback from the composer. For instance, you could guess what he meant, but then he would surprise you saying, "no, actually I want this other effect," and then you realize that's much more interesting. It's really cool to have a piece composed for us as a duo team.
We've met a lot of piano duos over the years, through competitions and studying. I learned a lot from listening to them because growing up, we were one of the only few duos that I met in the States. To listen to others and know their strengths is inspiring. You can learn there's not only one way to play a piece, you could do it another way and be just as effective.
I have non-musician friends and they're very supportive. To them even playing a piece from memory is like "how do you do that?" or going on stage and performing, "how do you have the nerve to do that?" It's nice to know that it amazes them.
And I learn a lot from Sarah. I can't even count the ways - in my personal life, in my musical life, everything. I think most of what I learned from Sarah is how to work with other people. Growing up I was an individualistic person. I didn't work well in groups and I wasn't good at sharing things. I still had to learn how to work with people and share musical ideas. Working with your twin sister is as close as you can get I guess.
Sarah: I think we want to continue [working with composers]. We want to commission works and play as a duo. We learn a lot from other piano duos. Most of the ones we've met are very supportive of each other because we know we're all unique in different ways and that we have our strengths. It's never aggressive.
Faure, Dolly Suite, Le Pas Espagnole
How do your teaching styles differ and how are they similar? What do you think is the best way to expose children to music education?
Sarah: It comes from experience - the more we teach, the more we learn how to treat each student. Every student is different. We teach in schools where learning the piano is an option – it's not forced. I think it's important to teach them that music is fun because otherwise they wouldn't practice and there'd be no point. I think it's very important they relate music to life.
Susan: We use different books. I have quite a few adult students so I have one for the adults and one for the kids. It's been really fun for me because I have to be creative just to get them interested. For example, I once referred to Michael Jackson for playing legato. This one child couldn't understand how to connect the notes with her fingers. To use a physical equivalent I talked about the moonwalk and she loved it. She chuckled and played around with her fingers and the legato came out perfectly. It's been really fun for me because I have to be creative just to get them interested. I try to find more connections to everyday things and pop culture. I think that's probably one of the most important things because piano is a discipline. They have to practice and repeat things ten million times. It can get tedious, but if they have something they can look forward to, then there's a balance.
Sarah: I want to add that it's important for us to continue performing, because [the students] have to hear it. They have to hear it at the performance level and not just from playing their pieces. They have to know the possibilities out there. For example, the Cinderella project that we played was an exchange between story and music. It's more interactive. I think that's a good way to expose kids to music. They can hear it as a story.
Sarah plays Mendelssohn
Susan and Sarah are performing their Taiwan debut on March 30th, 2013 at the Culture University in Taipei. Their new CD "American Crossings" is out now and available to purchase from Castigo Records.