- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

HANOI, VIETNAM (AP) - Time was running out, and it wasn’t safe to stay. Sixty upright pianos had to be moved from Hanoi’s music conservatory to a village in the countryside where students could practice without the constant threat of American bombers.

The pianos were hauled by train to neighboring Bac Giang province, dragged another 13 kilometers (8 miles) on carts pulled by cattle and water buffalo, and finally hand-carried by villagers into flimsy huts with dirt floors. Thai Thi Lien, a founder of the music school and an accomplished Western-trained pianist, was charged with making sure the war and a lack of sheet music did not stop the best players from being sent abroad for advanced classical training.

Today, looking at a tattered black-and-white photo sitting atop the grand piano in her living room, the 92-year-old sees herself as a smiling young beauty surrounded by three grinning children. The image is a reminder of that hasty journey in 1965 to seek refuge during the Vietnam War.

Thanks in part to Madame Lien, as she’s known, a lasting appreciation for classical music was woven into Vietnam’s culture. So much so, that the country’s first professional concert hall is now being built in honor of this music matriarch.


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In the village with no running water or electricity, Vietnam’s soggy air and pounding rains ate away at the pianos’ wooden frames, while hungry rats burrowed inside, nibbling felt off the hammers for their nests. There weren’t enough keyboards to go around, and students were forced to take turns practicing around the clock.

Dang Thai Son was just 7 years old at the time. Despite having Madame Lien as both his mother and teacher, he was forced to compete against all the much-older students for his chance to touch the keys just 30 minutes each day.

Some of the school’s 400 students learning various instruments were taught in mud-wall bunkers, but there was no room underground for all the uprights. Pianists instead banged out Beethoven in the open until being forced to take cover when screaming air raid sirens warned of approaching American B-52 bombers. Some students, determined not to lose their precious turn, terrified villagers by refusing to stop playing despite the danger. The village, however, was never hit.

“It’s dark, it’s humid and it’s dangerous. There’s a lot of snakes and frogs and all kinds of insects,” Son said, laughing at the memory. “When the parents weren’t there, we would go out and just watched how they are fighting each other. Bravo!”

With his older sister already a skilled pianist and his brother playing cello, Son said his parents discouraged him from taking up an instrument at first, arguing that the family already had enough musicians. But the young boy was drawn to the keyboard and soon found that music flowed easily from somewhere deep inside.

He remembers his mother lovingly coaching him to play the romantic ballads of her favorite composer, Chopin. The emerald green rice fields, the moon and the jungle somehow touched him during those early years.

“Today, the relationship between professor and student can sometimes be a business relationship,” Son said, perched next to his mom in Hanoi, where the family reunited this month for the Lunar New Year, or Tet. “But at that time in the village, it’s like a big family and we shared everything _ we shared the pain, we shared also the joy _ and it’s really such a human relationship that is quite different.”

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Madame Lien still looks more the part of a socialite than a jungle-dwelling nationalist. Even at 92, her eyebrows are carefully trimmed into tiny crescents, her nails manicured with a clear shellac and her short, thin hair dyed dark, with small pearls adorning her ears.

Her eyes snap as she speaks quickly in English laden with a French accent, complaining that her hearing isn’t so great anymore. She laughs and apologizes for not being able to easily decipher an American accent, instead offering to speak in Vietnamese, Russian, Polish or even, perhaps, a little Czech.

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