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14 minutes reading time (2707 words)

Living on The Edge: A Piano Prodigy Changes Course

When David Tong was seven, a week before he was scheduled to make his professional debut as a pianist, a boy took his basketball during gym class and refused to return it. David regularly got into fights at school, often over nothing more than a stolen pencil; a stolen basketball was flagrant provocation. The pair started shoving and scuffling. When David threw a kick, the other boy caught David's foot with both hands and held fast, leaving him hopping on one leg. 

David recalled an acrobatic jump kick he'd seen on television that was used in precisely this scenario. Instinctively, he imitated the move. With one foot in the boy's grasp, he leapt into the air and rotated his body sideways to strike his opponent's head with his free foot. The boy released the foot when kicked, but David, whose body was roughly parallel to the gym floor, hadn't planned this far ahead. Before he crashed back to earth, he just had time to stick out both arms and break his fall. His hands twisted backward under the weight of his body, and he sprained both wrists. Worse, a week later, he was scheduled to perform the Grieg piano concerto with the Melbourne Symphony.

A Synesthetic Prodigy

​David, who was born in 1983, began piano lessons with his mother at age six, but he was already reading music at four. Like many musical prodigies, he read music before he read words. He can't remember the process of learning to decipher notes: either he learned before he could form his earliest memory, or he learned so quickly that the experience left no trace in his mind.

In Melbourne, he lived with his parents in a dilapidated studio apartment. The bathroom was outside, a freestanding structure in the backyard of a neighboring house. Their ceiling sprang countless leaks, and the patter of rainwater and the stench of mold permeated the single room. 

His parents were not the domineering figures sometimes seen in biographies of supremely gifted musicians: his mom taught piano lessons, and his dad worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The Tongs had moved a used upright piano into a corner of their apartment, and David soon spent most of his time experimenting with the instrument. He played frequently, but never with the burden of parental expectations as a motive. His parents mandated no minimum practice time each day, and never criticized or humiliated him. (In contrast, Lang Lang's father once encouraged his nine-year-old son to leap off a balcony; the boy's teacher had said he had no talent, and Lang Lang had cut into his regular practice time by staying after school to accompany choir practice.) 

For David, music was a realm of game and story. When his parents played recordings at home, they'd ask him to play back sections of whatever they were listening to, even Beethoven symphonies. He could grasp intricate harmonic and rhythmic patterns after one hearing and reproduce them on the piano. 

His experience of music was fused with narrative and imaginary elements. When he played Bach, he saw scenes of exquisite detail: ornate Baroque halls and coffered gold ceilings. He said there was "always the smell of aged wood. Everything all grand and ceremonial." Ravel sparked sensations of temperature and color. "One of my favorite colors in Ravel was a dark silvery purple, and the massive chord changes he does literally felt like being in the sea. One spot, it's all dark and warm salty water, then you move a half meter to the left, and there's a cold pocket. That's what I felt playing Ravel."

Mozart's D-minor concerto conjured an elemental struggle. "There was this dark spirit, always just a pace behind, pursuing Mozart through the streets of Vienna at dusk. The streets were cobblestone, the light was all murky. It was one grand story, always shifting between major and minor." 

​Expressive markings of dynamics and phrasing were the means by which David modulated imagined worlds. He'd play a diminuendo not because it was indicated, but to watch the sky change color over eighteenth-century Vienna. Playing a passage portato rather than legato might change the intonations of a conversation between two characters on a street corner. He was both spectator and creator of richly detailed landscapes, cosmic dramas, and grand baroque ceremonies. The basic harmonic framework of a passage generated sets of images, plot lines, and characters that he could manipulate and explore in a seemingly infinite number of combinations. Music was a synesthetic feast, a means of feeding the basic pleasures of story, image, and sensation.

With these enticements, David didn't need additional reasons to practice. Realizing his rare talent as well as his motives, his mom gave him substantial repertoire as soon as he started playing. He began with Mozart sonatas, and in less than a year he was playing Chopin etudes, Bach partitas, and Mozart piano concertos. Though he won every competition he entered, playing on a stage felt no different from playing at home. Whatever the venue, he always became oblivious to everything around him while pursuing the possibilities of his conjured worlds.

When he was seven, after hearing a recital by the Russian pianist Valery Kuleshov, David walked onstage and played a Chopin scherzo and Mendelssohn's Variations sérieuses. Kuleshov's agent was still in the emptying hall; after hearing David play, the agent offered immediate representation. Six months later, after a few well- received recitals in smaller venues, David was booked to play the Grieg piano concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Injury and "Horror" 

​His parents weren't surprised when they heard that David hurt his wrists at school. He was constantly in trouble for fighting, disrupting class, and disobeying instructions. Away from the piano, his singular powers of control vanished. "I was quite wild when I was younger. I'd fight almost every day, usually the same two or three kids. They'd steal my notebook or something stupid, and I'd just go crazy, I'd get in such a fury: breathing hard, kicking, sobbing."

His wrists were still bothering him on the day of the concert, though their condition had improved over the previous week. Once he started playing, the pain dissipated, and he felt a freezing sensation. "[The concerto] was so cold and Norwegian, particularly the second movement. Beautiful trees covered in soft, fluffy snow. Grieg cross-country skiing, on a journey. Hints of passion in a frigid environment were like bits of color against all the whiteness of the landscape." The concert was a success. More engagements in Australia, China, and New Zealand followed.

When David was eleven, his agent sent a tape of his playing to Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He was accepted with a full scholarship. Had he attended, he would have studied with Graffman, Lang Lang's teacher, and been in the same class as Lang Lang. In retrospect, he thinks the level of competition at Curtis might have been helpful; being surrounded by so many first- rate pianists would have made him work harder. But he was already enjoying a career in Australia. At twelve, he won the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Young Performer Award, playing Liszt's second piano concerto. TV crews began showing up at his house—unannounced—to interview him. He even appeared on the Steve Vizard show, Australia's equivalent of Jay Leno. It seemed like nothing could go wrong.

Over the next few years David kept concertiz- ing, but something began to change. "If someone said not to do something, I'd do it. I wanted to experience everything. I was going out, meeting girls, playing pool." He started losing some of his interest in music. Piano had been a way to expe- rience an abundance of stories and settings, but in his teens he began seeking these experiences in real life, away from the piano. He'd tell his par- ents he was practicing on the nine-foot Steinway at the Melbourne Symphony Hall, for instance, but instead he would cruise the downtown area with friends. "I started not to care if I didn't play. I want- ed to be something else. When something comes too easily, you take it for granted. I was bored."

Even as his career expanded, David could afford to neglect his practicing. Because he learned challenging music so easily, he never began work on a concerto more than two weeks before a concert; he learned Rachmaninoff's second concerto, Tchaikovsky's first concerto, Rachmaninoff's Paganini variations, and several of the Beethoven concertos in that short amount of time. "Technically I was always fine, but emotionally the playing was pretty bare." He still became immersed in the narratives music suggested, but he wasn't spending enough time at the piano to explore them fully.

On a cloudy winter afternoon when he was sixteen, David and a friend confronted a tall teenage boy from another school. The boy had stolen David's friend's phone and was refusing to return it. "We were outside some Asian cafe. It was quite pathetic, really. I punched him just to see what it would feel like." The boy turned his head just before David connected, so knuckles collided with the side of the boy's skull. David felt an excruciating pain in his fourth knuckle and knew instantly that he had done something serious to his right hand. Friends on both sides continued to fight as David slipped away.

​His parents, as usual, thought he had been practicing. He told them that he had been crossing the street when the rearview mirror of a car clipped his outstretched hand. The story wasn't entirely plausible, but he needed an official narrative for teachers, conductors, and colleagues in the music world. Immediately after the fight David went to an alternative practitioner hoping he could resolve the pain right away without anyone else knowing its origin. The doctor "took my finger, got a firm grasp, and proceeded to pull and tug on it as hard as he could. I was in shock, the pain was unbelievable."

When he sat down at the piano the next day, he felt a strong pain as he pressed his fourth finger to the keys. His mom took him to the hospital for X-rays, and he learned that he had fractured the finger just above the knuckle. He wore a special cast for four weeks. This time, he was forced to cancel a concert: a performance of Rachmaninoff's third concerto with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

Once the cast was removed, David's technique initially seemed unchanged. But soon he started noticing differences. Suddenly, some of Liszt's Transcendental Etudes seemed difficult for his right hand. Passages that had never given him trouble now caused minor train wrecks if he played them at full speed. The muscles of his hand deteriorated from lack of use, and the knuckle of his fourth finger sat lower than before, changing the mechanics of his entire hand. "I got a new hand. It just took me a while to realize it."

​The realization began at a performance at the Sydney Opera House. He was playing Liszt's "Venezia e Napoli," a piece he knew well and had performed many times before, but—when he reached a difficult passage—his right hand didn't respond. He knew what he wanted the hand to do, what it used to do effortlessly, but now he couldn't play the section. "I freaked out. I never had any issues with technique." Concertizing became a fraught experience. A few months later, he had an even worse performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto "in front of 120,000 people."

David's mental experience of music changed radically. Before his injury he would lose himself in the landscapes of different pieces, but now he became acutely aware of audiences. When his mind did produce images, they were metaphors for his own loss of control. In one, he saw a rubber band slowly twisting and winding: he tried to mentally unwind it, but—as the music became more difficult—the pace of the twisting accelerated. Then, during an impossibly hard section, the rubber band "tangled into a million knots at light speed." This technical insecurity shattered the pianist's confidence, which gradually led to more technical problems.

At every performance, David felt like he was losing years of his life. "It was a horror. The balance wasn't right, that I had to feel so much pain to give people pleasure through music." Rather than continue concertizing, he accepted a full scholarship to Juilliard and moved to New York City.

"Dark Years" in New York

​In relation to most pianists, even those at Juilliard, David still had outstanding technique, but he could no longer control expressive nuances the way he wanted to. Playing technically demanding passages felt like leaping over a large chasm. Sometimes he would land safely on the far side, other times he would not. His second year, he played for a major agent from ICM, but the performance didn't go well. Afterward, David shied away from most concert opportunities. 

He still played well enough that neither friends nor teachers believed he had a real hand problem. But he felt his technique was dismal compared to the way he had once played. He experimented with seat height, wrist height, angles of approach, angles of key strike, and many other variables. He taped bits of styrofoam between his fingers to help make them more independent. He tried to develop an apparatus to lift his fourth finger higher; for a while, he wore a foam ring when he practiced to help elevate the finger.

He spent seven years at Juilliard, a period he calls "my dark years." He was declining concerts, playing poorly by his personal standards, and watching as the international career that had seemed so inevitable in his early teens slowly fizzled out. He also faced the constant incredulity of his peers and teacher, who insisted that he simply needed to practice more, or to work on his mental attitude before concerts. He started drinking heavily. He got into a pattern of practicing after he sobered up, between 3 and 5 a.m., then sleeping through classes the next day. He saw various doctors and hand specialists who acknowledged the reality of his problem but offered no solutions. In his fourth year at Juilliard, a doctor told him that no operation could help his hand. David, crushed, felt that if he couldn't play, there wasn't "much point to living."

One night David and a few friends slipped through a fire door, climbed a ladder, and found themselves on the roof of the Juilliard dorms. He'd had a few shots of vodka, and soon he was running along the edge of the roof on a strip of concrete roughly twelve inches wide. His friends were begging him to stop, but he wouldn't come down. So they sat down to watch as David, already somewhat tipsy, did laps around the perimeter, thirty stories above the ground.

Maturity and Rapture

David's hand only started improving after he left New York and returned to Melbourne. After his injury reconfigured his hand, he had worked for years to adjust the mechanics of his playing. Some combination of the physical retraining and the mental benefits of leaving New York allowed him to begin playing with more control and expression than he had in nearly a decade.

He considered entering major competitions to try to relaunch a career, but years of injury had given him time to reconsider his relationship to music. People in Australia would ask him if he was still a professional musician. His reply was to play them something and ask if they thought it was at a professional level. He wanted to distinguish between the use of the term professional to mean "highly competent" versus "paid for a particular skill." He was professional by the first standard, but the second seemed increasingly unimportant.

When he plays now he experiences something close to the same imaginative rapture he felt as a child. The intervening years seem to have added a maturity to his vision. While recently playing through the end of the last movement of Rachmaninoff's third concerto, he saw and heard images of triumph permeated with a sad knowledge. "It's all crashing waves and mighty explosions and fireworks, like you've conquered everything. But you know it's never going to be permanent."

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Andrew McMillan on Thursday, 11 July 2019 05:55

David Tong was tragically killed when the plane he was piloting crashed in 2018.

David Tong was tragically killed when the plane he was piloting crashed in 2018.

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