In one of the less pleasant parts of Vienna’s otherwise lovely Third District, in a vast attic around the corner from the subway station, men, women, teens and tweens run about and stretch in silence, most of them in bright orange T-Shirts and floppy trousers. The T-Shirt says “More Chi | Train Harder!”

It’s the local Shaolin Kung Fu center, and it’s a Thursday evening, which means training open to all skill levels is about to commence. It’s how I find myself there, feeling a little awkward, but safe in the knowledge I can keep my shoes on (feet are private) and knowing that Andreas Haefliger, pianist and nine-year veteran at that center, is with me, ready to quietly guide, advise or simply make me feel better should the need arise. As I make my way through two of the physically toughest hours in as far back as I care to remember — a sweating, panting, exhausted mess, his encouraging and motivating glances (no talking during those two hours!) help me make it through the at-first-glance simple exercises of running, hopping and kicking. 

Kung Fu could be translated as “Hard Work,” though in the West it often refers to any Chinese martial art. But Shaolin Kung Fu, the oldest type and available in countless different styles, turns out to be much more about “striving for quiescence of body, mind and intention,” rather than flying dragons, crouching tigers, and kicking someone’s teeth out. It’s really more of an amped-up Tai Chi; about balance, elasticity, reach; about stretching, elongating muscles and — fully devoid of esotericism — an elongation of the mind’s grasp, too.

It’s a stretch, for an outsider, to believe that however vigilant exercise has much of an effect on the mind as on the matter, but listening to the level-headed Andreas Haefliger speak about how it has transformed the way he plays — and thinks about playing — the piano, I’m bound to believe it.

Explosive style. The pianist Andreas Haefliger feels that Shaolin Kung Fu has changed his music making considerably.

 

Haefliger, who just premiered Zhou Long’s Piano Concerto at the BBC Proms, is one of the finer and more successful pianists in the world. Born in Switzerland, Haefliger moved to New York as a teenager to study at Juilliard. After the September 11 attacks — by now a proper New Yorker, married and father of a daughter, but unhappy with the atmospheric change in his city and the country — he returned to Europe. He is son of the great tenor Ernst (the Evangelist of his time and known to many for his Bach with Karl Richter), and brother of Michael, the director of the Lucerne Festival. More impressive (since he can’t be made responsible for his blood relations one way or the other), he is husband to Marina Piccinini, also a Kung Fu maven, but also a supreme flutist “gorgeous and talented in equal measure,” if the Washington Post is to be believed. More than that, Gramophone Magazine recently one-upped that quote (mine, incidentally) by proclaiming her “the Heifetz of the Flute.” (No doubt leaving Andreas Haefliger aspiring to one day become the Piccinini of the piano.)

Marina Piccinini, a charming polyglot of Italian–Brazilian–American–Canadian–German influences, also wears orange and runs, kicks, and jumps about in the disciplined fashion practiced at the Kung Fu temple. The elegant-limbed, stretchy flutist, who can flip over like a wet noodle and casually reach her toes with her wrists, would have been the more natural fit for Shaolin Kung Fu.

Haefliger, meanwhile, who couldn’t reach his knees bending forward when he started out, has gained more directly from the practice in regards to his music making. In fact, it has changed his approach to music considerably — to the point where he now considers much more diligently what, when and how to play. Emanating the sound or approach to music of his father’s, he strived after an ideal in music that translated into utter control on the keyboard which came with — and perhaps necessitated — tightness and plenty of rigor. “Maybe not ‘tightness,’ ” suggests Haefliger on second thought. “Perhaps it would be better to say ‘the imitation of the vocal cords necessitated a physical tension….’” He lets this roll around in his head for a few seconds and then shakes his salt-and-pepper curls. “Or maybe just stick with ‘tightness.’”

Shaolin Kung Fu turns out to be much more about ‘striving for quiescence of body, mind and intention,’ rather than flying dragons, crouching tigers, and kicking someone’s teeth out.

Over the course of engaging in Shaolin Kung Fu, Haefliger started noticing his body and his mind change and loosen. This approach no longer seemed suited to the desired goal of communicating music, especially not in the classical repertoire: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. Perhaps a little disturbing at first, but certainly liberating, Kung Fu has given him a different way of seeing things, thinking about physical objects and friendships — but especially music and how to play the piano. Whereas he once aspired to a very particular singing line and tone that caused a tight and highly controlled approach, he now strives for something that is more flowing, with an air of greater certainty and even confidence. 

But perhaps the word “confidence” gives the wrong impression: first of all, that’s not something Haefliger strikes one as ever having lacked. Secondly, it is with greater humility that he now approaches the piano, embracing the audience, instead of seeing in it the potential enemy or a body populous to be conquered or convinced rather than invited.

Haefliger is keen on emphasizing that he doesn’t find the physicality of the change so important and that it’s really about the music. “It’s about the freest possible connection from the physical to the keyboard. And after this, I’m done talking about Kung Fu. Any change in my playing is now here — what got me there is really not that important. What is important is that I feel very positive about it.” 

This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & CultureSteinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.

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