This story appeared in the spring 2014 issue of Chapman Magazine.
From a chaotic hallway full of scurrying students and mingling voices, Arsen Jamkotchian ’15 steps into a realm where the din swiftly dissolves. In Grace Fong’s Bertea Hall office in the Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music, there’s barely room for two grand pianos, but somehow they fit, side by side, allowing space for little else beyond aspiration.
Jamkotchian, tall and angular, moves right to the bench he’s been waiting all day to occupy. For both student and teacher, music is breath, it is life, it is joy incarnate. But here, in this windowless space, on this Tuesday afternoon, music is 60 minutes of hard work.
Jamkotchian possesses the gift and drive to someday realize his dream of performing as a concert pianist. Opportunities like this, to gain insights from a piano master such as Fong, are a big reason why he chose Chapman University. Likewise, nurturing the talent of young performers like Jamkotchian is why Fong chooses to split her time between the concert stage and teaching sessions.
“My aim is to help students find their individual voice and to be able to use and develop it by the time they graduate,” says Fong, whose own playing has been described by critics as “positively magical” and “passionately honest.” One raved, “She is above being a mere virtuoso — she occupies a lofty stratosphere of her own making.”
“Ten students can approach the same piece in completely different ways physically, musically, philosophically,” Fong adds. “Every artist has a different story to tell — one just needs the know-how and the confidence to tell it.”
Jamkotchian’s voice is spirited, and soon the office walls pulse with the sounds of Verdi and Prokofiev. It’s clear that even though he maintains the academic schedule of a junior double-majoring in music and computer science, the six hours a day he sets aside for piano practice is time well invested. Still, Fong finds opportunities to help Jamkotchian grow.
“Lean in,” she says at one point. “It still sounds like you’re only playing with your fingers.”
She presses on his shoulders. “Think of the balcony. … Yes, that’s right; feel the connection. A little more intense. Better. That’s better!”
Later, between movements, Fong tells her student, “Technically, it’s all there. But now we need to start putting in the characters.”
Jamkotchian is preparing to perform Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6 in A Major, the first of the composer’s War Sonatas, during a series of concerts, including his junior recital. In the summer there will be festivals, and Jamkotchian wants to bulk up his repertoire with an eye toward international competitions.
“For the Prokofiev, Dr. Fong always mentions that it needs to have a lot of clarity and intensity,” he says. “She really focuses on technique and very specific aspects of the music. I love working with her, because I always get something out of it.”
Now, about those characters.
“So which one are you thinking of?” she asks as Jamkotchian begins to play.
“A crazy person,” he says.
The teacher pauses. “But is this person completely crazy?”
The student plays on, his head bobbing slightly. Later, Fong encourages him to explore a passage as if he were entering “The Twilight Zone.” “Really feel the creepy- crawly-ness of it,” she says. “Remember that even the soft sounds have a savage quality.”
As the session continues, there are moments of standout intensity, a few minor breakthroughs, some simultaneous playing by teacher and pupil, and at least one more interesting point of emphasis by Fong. “This part should be weird — like a weird circus,” she says. “Good! That time I pictured a spooky merry-go-round.”
The 60 minutes fly by — so much so that it’s clear at the session’s end Jamkotchian would like to take a couple of more spins on the merry-go-round. But there will be plenty more chances. For now, he gathers his belongings, thanks Fong for her time and nods as she offers some encouraging words.
He opens the door and re-enters the flow of hallway traffic, and as he does it’s hard not to imagine that a few of Prokofiev’s characters are exiting with him.