Margaret bought her first toy piano from a thrift shop for $45. “It had a beautiful tone, a lovely irresistible quality,” she says, and after mastering Cage’s piece, she realised the “toy” had the potential to become a “real” instrument. Soon her composer friends were writing pieces for her and she was arranging songs she thought demanded to be heard on her newly discovered instrument: Bach, Philip Glass, Erik Satie. “And in the end I thought they sounded better on the toy piano because of its magical character!”
This led to the 1997 album The Art of the Toy Piano and a coronation: Margaret Leng Tan was now known as the Queen of the Toy Piano. She says she has since collected about 30 toy pianos “in various stages of efficiency. I have my top of the line touring ones and I have antiques and curiosities.”
As Margaret’s artistic career takes a new turn into theatre with Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, the toy piano has not been forgotten: it is an integral part of the show, and she will continue to do concert performances. But the theatre experience has been such an unexpected joy, especially after years of insisting on working autonomously, that she hopes it will have a long life and she can tour it around the world. She is thrilled that it has given her the opportunity to perform at the Opera House.
“I remember my father telling me about it when the Sydney Opera House was first built because he went to Sydney and that’s 40 years ago!” she says. “And I finally got to see it for myself and now I'm going to be playing in it. To me it's just an unbelievable turn of events.”
While Margaret performs in Dragon Ladies, the future of the toy piano is in safe hands: since she legitimised the instrument by using it in a concert setting to play classical and pop pieces, many others have done the same – there are even toy piano summits held around the world.
“Yes, people have followed in my footsteps and it’s just wonderful,” says Margaret. “The toy piano is going to be my legacy and it will live on after I've gone. Its future is alive and well.”