Piano duets hold a special place in my heart. The bug bit when I first played “Heart and Soul” with my neighbor, Karen Benson at the tender age of 7. I’m remembering our playing it so much that we were politely asked to “get the heck off the piano already and go outside and play!” (I dare anyone to claim they never played that duet or at least Chopsticks, back in the day. lol)
Thankfully my parents nurtured my burgeoning passion for piano with proper lessons by the age of 8. My supportive hubby who happens to be a pianist/composer/rock musician encouraged me to continue piano lessons and masterclasses after we were married. Over the past 30 years, I’ve achieved a pretty decent level of technique and sightreading skills to enjoy playing a variety of duets with friends to this day, often performing at my students’ concerts.
Speaking of concerts, those who know me, know I relish attending home concerts featuring world-class musicians. It occurred to me that the only piano duet home concert I’ve had the privilege of attending was in 2010 by master pianists Rufus Choi and Yana Reznik on Ronna Binn‘s two Hamburg Steinways at her exceptional Classical Encounters home concert. Memorable performances! I’ve been hungry for more piano duet concerts since.
As it turns out, in January 2020, Todd Mason of Mason Home Concerts hosted a fantastic piano duet performance by The Vieness Piano Duo. (Todd renovated his Mar Vista home to accommodate performances by award-winning musicians. You can read more about that incredible feat here.) Sadly, due to health issues, I was unable to attend. From what I heard, it was a stunning performance. I had to learn more about this piano duo.
I reached out to The Vieness Duo’s Vijay Venkatesh and Eva Schaumkell, and they graciously and enthusiastically accepted my interview invitation. I hope you enjoy getting acquainted with this dynamic duo!
Q1. What is the story behind selecting the name “Vieness” for your Piano Duo?
A1. Vieness is a combination of the first letters of our last names, V&S (Venkatesh and Schaumkell). We then spelled it to create our own word, Vieness, which would be the spelling phonetically.
Q2. Very clever! You and your wife are pianists at the top of your game. Why perform as a piano duo? What was the event or thoughts that inspired you to do so?
A2. Eva and I have had solo careers since we were in our teenage years and we’ve each played a ton of chamber music, which we truly love.
We had been dating for a year before starting to play together professionally, and in that time we had been sight-reading duet music together. We realized how fulfilling it was to play together and we decided to make our first recordings of two-piano music at Indiana University. It was a big hit with presenters and attracted attention for engagements and so we decided to expand our repertoire and establish a media and website presence.
We realized a piano duo is a great musical niche to tap into, with extraordinary repertoire to perform, and we tripled the number of concerts we were booking. Vijay, having grown up in SoCal and established a major concert presence, has amassed many contacts that we are able to introduce Vieness to.
We still perform solo engagements and chamber music with larger ensembles, but Vieness is something that we’re very excited to keep up for life. As an extra bonus, we get to travel together!
Q3. That’s fantastic to be able to share a love for music in a way that expresses and informs your relationship both professionally and personally. How did you two meet, professionally? When did you first play duets together? Had each of you performed duets with other pianists before? If so, with whom, when and performance details?
A3. We met at the University of Southern California a few years ago. We’ve both performed piano duos with other people and there is even a class in the art of piano duo at USC. We didn’t meet in that class, but having taken it was a wonderful introduction to that type of ensemble. Vieness is the first duo that we’ve promoted publicly.
Vijay grew up performing duets with his older brother.
Eva’s very first duo was with her grandmother, who taught her piano and note-reading for the first year. Then she played with her first piano teacher – the photo below shows 9-year old Eva with her piano teacher at the time at a performance in Germany!
Q4. The joy of playing duets as a kid brings back fond memories for me. Thank you for sharing. What is your style of playing referred to? For my piano students, would you please describe what this style means or represents? Do you have a preference for two pianos or four-hands one piano?
The repertoire in the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic, and Contemporary styles are plentiful for piano duo. Some of our favorites include Bach cantata transcriptions, Mozart Sonatas, Schubert Fantasy in F Minor, Brahms Hungarian Dances, Fauré Dolly Suite, Barber Souvenirs, etc. We truly love the music we play and a lot of our rehearsals are spent delving into a piece’s deeper secrets, seeking to release the music’s charm and deeply impact the audience when they leave the concert hall.
Music has transformed everything in our lives. It connects us to other forms of art-painting, photography, architecture, etc. They are intertwined and appear in our daily lives if we care to listen and see. As we search for new performance opportunities, our efforts are aimed at making our audiences experience the music we choose to play just as viscerally as we do. Every day is a mission, in which we give ourselves all to the music in the pursuit of something more and more beautiful.
Performing 4-hands vs. 2-pianos each has its unique elements. In 4-hands, there is less room on the bench and each person only gets half the keyboard so it can be constricting. However, it’s much more intimate and the chemistry of collaboration is much more palpable. One person also controls the pedal so there needs to be extensive discussion and practice pedaling for another person. With 2 pianos, there is much more freedom and space and definitely a larger scope of sound. However, each pianist is farther away which makes it more difficult to communicate than 4-hands.
We absolutely love both types of ensemble playing and it is fulfilling to be able to devise programs for each depending on the size of the venue.
Q5. Indeed! For piano recordings, what is the story or inspiration behind your choice of composers and compositions? Have you performed piano duets with orchestras or ensembles? BTW I enjoyed viewing the YoutTube video links you had sent me. I’m glad to share with my readers:
A5: We seek to program pieces that really move us. Works that tell a story are often very engaging for listeners and are fulfilling for us to perform. Schubert’s Fantasy in F Minor is a work that is very dear to us, for its undeniable beauty and the journey in which it takes us through its many stages and emotions. Brahms’s Hungarian dances are gorgeous miniatures and reveal an extraordinary amount of expression, from desolation to exuberance. Performances with orchestra will be announced soon and we are excited about our upcoming season!
Q6. Very inspiring. I hope my readers check out your recordings and attend your upcoming concerts. Best wishes with your upcoming performance with orchestra. My students are interested in the latest rehearsal trends, tips, and techniques. How does a piano duo rehearse as compared to preparing for a solo performance? Individually, how do you each prefer to mentally and physically prepare for a rehearsal? Do you have a set routine (best days/times)? How long do you usually rehearse to prepare repertoire? How do you prepare before a concert?
Eva: Interestingly, this was the topic of one of my doctoral qualifying essays I wrote earlier this month. A piano duo is unlike any other combination of chamber music and requires heightened degrees of empathy, being able to sense the music together as a unit, amplifying each other’s strength rather than competing or getting in each other’s way. This takes a lot of practice of course, but it definitely helps to know the other person well. I can’t imagine playing piano duets at a high level with a stranger, or someone you didn’t get along with on a personal level. Piano duets are unique in that both performers share a single instrument, but besides the physical proximity in 4-hands/1-piano settings, the nature of the piano, with hammers hitting the strings and creating immediate sound, means that you have to be absolutely in synch at all times. Any slight variation is immediately noticeable, there’s no hiding or stretching like you would be able to do with combinations of different instruments.
Vijay: Practice is definitely important for a musician, but besides locking oneself in a practice room, I think channeling life experiences into a piece of music is paramount to releasing its character. I seek to remember the moments that I felt so inspired, either seeing a beautiful sunset, enjoying a meaningful conversation with someone, hearing a beautiful speech or poem ¬– it all reappears in my playing. Working hard is important, but in addition, it is relishing the moments of life that touched my heart and the ability to compound them into art that changes others’ lives, just as much as it has changed mine.
On a physical level, piano playing is as demanding as sports. I need to be as warmed up as possible before a performance and that includes palpating the hands and regular massages. Generally, we rehearse for countless hours for a performance and repeat the program in many cities over the course of a season.
Every time before going out on stage, we tell each other to communicate as much as possible
and enjoy the fact that there is an audience out there who is excited to hear us!
Q7. That’s intense, being attuned to each other’s physical techniques, thoughts, and spiritual presence during a live performance. At what age did each of you realize you were a musical spirit?
Vijay: When I was 16 and finished my performance in the final round of the Waring International Piano Competition, I was able to talk with all the judges, particularly Marc Durand. He discussed the Polonaise in F# minor op.44 which I had played and expressed to me that my playing was “like magic.” This was a turning point in my musical journey and I had finally achieved what I strived to do: use music to transport a person to a whole other world.
Eva: For me, it was more of a gradual process rather than one specific moment. While encouragement from professionals was very important to me and competitions certainly helped, it was the interaction with audiences after concerts I played that made me realize music was something I was meant to do. It gave me a unique opportunity to move people and to contribute something meaningful. I don’t think I realized until my teenage years how much a performance has the potential to deeply impact someone.
Q8. Your mutual desire to elevate your audience through music is admirable and touches my heart. Did anyone try to talk either of you out of fulfilling your dream as a musician? Did anyone try to discourage you from performing duets? If so, how did you handle it?
A8. We have both been extremely fortunate that we have families who have supported us and cheered us on throughout our musical journeys. No one, in particular, tried to discourage us from pursuing a career in music, but nonetheless every musician experiences setbacks in their career. Whether it’s not winning a competition or audition after months of preparation and facing rejection, it’s always tough to swallow. However, we always find redemption in the beauty of the music and it inspires us to continue this musical path. Now that we’ve found each other, it’s much more comforting when we have each other to lean on, and two heads are definitely better than one!
Q9. I’m so glad to hear. Agreed! How old were each of you when you performed your first professional concert? How did you get the gig? Was it through teacher connections or via a professional manager?
Eva: I started performing in smaller, local concerts when I was elementary school age. I think my first piano teacher helped arrange these, and after that one thing led to another by word of mouth. I also started competing in youth competitions when I was 9, and winning prizes there led to further engagements.
Vijay: Many of my first performances were in elementary school talent shows. My first public performance was in 1996 in Sacramento for the Suzuki International Conference. I played the “Wild Rider” by Schumann. Raised on the Suzuki method of music learning, it was a great honor to be selected to perform for this occasion.
Q11. That must have been exciting for you both, at that age. Does either of you happen to also teach piano? If so, was there any particular person or event that inspired your decision?
Eva: I have been teaching for about 12 years now! At first, I taught some private students during my undergraduate years in London, later I taught at some schools in Dresden and Berlin. For the past 3 years, I was a teaching assistant at USC, teaching private lessons and group classes. I really think any performer should teach, and any teacher should perform. Of course, the standard thing to say is that you want to give back, pass on what you know to young people because it’s rewarding and important – and all of that is true! But I also learn a lot about myself through teaching, and it makes me more disciplined in my own practice. Like I’d feel guilty not following my own advice after I made my students do it! Conversely, I like to think that being a performer helps me prepare and inspire my students in the best possible way for their own performances.
We both teach privately as well and are planning to establish a Vieness teaching studio in the near future. We encourage any prospective students of all ages to get in touch with us!
Q12. We are of like minds, having taught piano since 1989, creating a line of piano education books with my husband, Barry Michael Wehrli and performing with ensembles at local establishments. Has either of you composed works of your own? Have you arranged music for piano duets? If so, what style are they in? Will you be recording any of them?
A12. Growing up in SoCal, Vijay composed and performed music for colleagues in the USC and Chapman film production programs.
As Vieness, we have made arrangements and recordings of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”, and expanded on Katia Buniatishvili’s version of Piazzolla’s “Libertango”. Recently we arranged Offenbach’s “Can-Can” and will be premiering it at all our upcoming concerts this year.
Our recording of Libertango was our biggest production yet. We collaborated with two dancers so that viewers could engage in classical music in a format familiar to them. It was a demanding project and we felt even more inspired filming with the dancers to create an interactive performance.
Q13. Composing, arranging and performing. Very rewarding. Music can touch people’s lives, bringing happiness and hope. For example, my piano school partners with CoachArt to provide free piano lessons for families impacted by childhood chronic illness. Is there a charity you are fond of or support, that you might like my readers to learn more about?
A13. The Vieness Duo performs outreach programs at schools.
Vijay also teaches students in the Jumpstart Young Musicians program at the Colburn School. It is a comprehensive, scholarship-supported beginning music program that provides pathways to musical excellence for low-income rising fifth-graders from local partner schools. It is a brilliant program that we would encourage others to join.
I had heard of Jumpstart and will research more about it. Best wishes with your commendable community service endeavors. In closing, do you have a favorite quote, mantra or process that you find inspiring or helpful when faced with a creative block, that you would like to share with my readers?
[Tweet “Practice like it means everything in the world to you. Perform like you don’t give a damn.”Jascha Heifetz”]
Amen to that! A heartfelt thanks to you, Vijay and Eva for your gracious time in sharing your story with my readers. I’m inspired to attend your upcoming concerts near me and hope my students will join me or watch your videos to spark their curiosity to play duets. I’m game to join them.
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