Margaret Leng Tan travels around the world to give concerts with her pianos in a handbag.
The classical musician has breathed new life into toy pianos, invented in Germany during the last century for the poor who could not afford the real thing for their children.
"I fell in love with the sound. It's very special. When you look inside, it's a percussion instrument. It's another xylophone disguised as a piano," she said. "It's amazing. More and more people are interested in it. They write to me. They send me music all the time."
To Western ears, toy pianos sound like church bells or sophisticated glockenspiels. In the East, the sound reminds listeners of the gamelan, an Indonesian gong that often accompanies traditional shadow plays.
Tan's repertoire ranges from Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata and the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" to modern pieces composed for her toy pianos. She has even been invited to perform at the birthplace of Beethoven in Bonn next February.
Crouched by her tiny instrument, much like the "Peanuts" character Schroeder, the slender pianist mesmerizes audiences as her fingers stroke the keys. She plays two toy pianos at once, merging the miniatures' three octaves, or mixes her playing of a grand piano with the sounds of a toy piano.
Her collection of toy pianos has expanded as fans have dug out instruments set aside by their children. But Tan did not discover toy pianos until 1993, when she decided to try playing one on the first anniversary of the death of John Cage, whom she called an inspiration.
Cage, known for helping introduce Zen to the United States and as a father of the conceptual art movement, composed his Suite for Toy Piano in 1948--the first piece ever written for the instrument.
"To find a toy piano in New York was not easy in the early 1990s because everybody played electronic toys. Finally I found a small one in a junk shop in the East Village for $45," Tan recalled. "It was so beautiful, in perfect condition."
Before her first encounter with Cage in 1981, Tan was about to abandon her career as a concert pianist. She was accepted at the Juilliard School at age 16 but felt too confined by the conventions and traditions of classical music.
Turning to her other passion--dogs--she studied to become a trainer for guide dogs for the deaf and lived in a cabin outside New York with six dogs. "I was searching for something that classical music cannot give. I was just fortunate that I met John Cage," she said.
Tan likes quoting Cage, who said: "There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot. . . . The music never stops. It is we who turn away."
Sitting cross-legged on the balcony of her mother's house, Tan performed Cage's notorious piece consisting only of silence. As she posed over her toy piano, a plane passed. Birds sang. A neighbor swept the garden.
Tan has worked with young, adventurous composers whom she calls Cage's spiritual children. She has also played inside the full-size piano, hitting the strings for percussion. "In my fascination with going beyond the conventional boundary of the piano, I just went one step further and got to the toy piano," she said.
Her popular CD "The Art of the Toy Piano," released in 1997, has helped revive A. Schoenhut Co., a toy piano manufacturer in the United States founded in 1872 by a grandson of the instrument's inventor, Albert Schoenhut.
Tan is also delighted that China is now turning to toy pianos for educating children because prices for real pianos are too high for many families there.
She lives in New York with her dogs, whose number varies constantly as she rescues abandoned animals. Last year she buried one of her dogs in her garden, watched over by a small statue of Beethoven.