Pianist Lang Lang began playing at three years old, and won the Shenyang Piano Competition at age five. At just 13, he won first prize at the Tchaikovsky International Young Musicians’ Competition. And at 15, he was invited to audition and was selected to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Though he has been called a prodigy, the story behind the musician and his family—their hard work, determination, and true passion for music—is what earned him his career. Today, at 32, Lang Lang feels lucky to have achieved acclaim as an in-demand pianist on the international stage.
Lang Lang was born June 1982 in Shenyang, China, roughly six years after the country’s Cultural Revolution had ended. His parents, both talented musicians, were victims of the social-political movement that sent intellectuals, including artists and musicians, to labor on farms and “learn” from the peasants. So Lang Lang’s own deep love, passion, and drive for music is underscored by a need to make up for their missed opportunities.
Lang Lang’s parents were totally dedicated to ensuring Lang Lang would follow his musical passions. When Lang Lang was nine, his father quit his job and moved with him to Beijing so that Lang Lang could attend the Central Conservatory of Music. His mother stayed behind to support the family. Lang Lang rarely saw her during those years. He spent most of his free time practicing under the watchful, and sometimes overbearing, eye of his father.
Lang Lang’s father and his teachers steered him through numerous competitions that almost always included traveling on a shoestring budget. And while his life today is composed of stays in fancy hotels as he travels around the world, he can’t forget the relative poverty he came from. Lang Lang has now made it his mission to inspire and help other young people succeed in music.
Through the Lang Lang International Music Foundation he teaches and mentors young talents toward piano careers. “I would have loved to have this kind of music education program when I was young,” he says. “My own career was helped by many great people; I love to help others now that I have the capacity to do so.”
Among the foundation’s initiatives, 101 Pianists performances engage 100 young pianists at a time in a collaborative and social musical event with Lang Lang. “We try to bring it to as many cities as we can to involve as many young pianists as we can,” he says. Those cities have so far included San Francisco, California; Berlin, Germany; London, England; Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Toronto, Canada; Rome, Italy; Washington, DC; and Brookville, New York.
His latest venture is the book series The Lang Lang Piano Academy: Mastering the Piano Book (Faber Music, 2015). “The five progressive books combine technique and inspiration in a unique way. Focusing on the skills required for practicing piano effectively, I explore key aspects of technique and share much of my own study experience,” says Lang Lang, explaining how his vision involves developing young players’ imaginations along with technique.
Lang Lang explains that imagination is necessary in order to understand the emotions involved in different works and to interpret them correctly. He is a very dramatic pianist, and in watching him perform, you can see the degree to which he expresses his emotions in each piece. “To me, the piano is like a musical world—it takes me to a place beyond reality,” he says.
“I did not struggle with technique for some reason, but I did think and research hard to reach the true meaning of the music and the correct sound for different genres of works. It is very important to find the correct emotion to different works. For example, Brahms’ music should be interpreted by certain ‘restrained emotion,’ and with Liszt’s music you need to use different emotions when playing works from different time periods,” he explains.
While Lang Lang’s early years were filled with piano competitions, once he began to achieve recognition as a performer that ended abruptly. His piano teacher and director at Curtis, Gary Graffman, gave him a fresh outlook on competitions.
In Lang Lang’s autobiographic book Journey of 1,000 Miles, My Story (2008, Random House) he recalls that conversation: “Chinese artistic culture is highly competitive on every level. Everyone is ranked …” the teacher told him. “They direct your energy away from the process to the prize. And, in my view, Lang Lang, it can’t be about the prize. It must be about the process.”
Check out Lang Lang performing “Happy” at the GRAMMYS with Pharrell Williams
Today, Lang Lang still believes competitions are a great way to create a performance career. “They give you opportunities and in this way they are good. Even though it is a contest, you can adjust your attitude to be healthy: focus on the music itself, not on the competition. What is difficult, is keeping your perspective when taking part in them,” he says, adding, “Once you’ve started your performance routine, competitions are not important anymore.”
Another key ingredient to success is having the right teacher, one who is flexible and willing to discuss the music with the student. “A good teacher should be open-minded and able to suggest ways for interpreting. Students should actively think for themselves and discuss their ideas with their teacher,” says Lang Lang. “I don’t appreciate it when a teacher ‘dictates’ the playing of a piece, instead of opening the music up to interpretation.”
As a young student, Lang Lang dedicated many hours of each day to practice, and even though he is now an in-demand and accomplished pianist, practice is still very important to him. “I try to practice three or four hours every day,” he says. “If I have more time, I practice more. When my schedule is really tight, I might only have one or two hours.”
And to this day, practice begins with the basics. “Scales are so important to me,” he says. “I play them at the start of every practice and always begin slowly.”
Lang Lang has shared the stage with the great symphony orchestras of the world, as well as diverse musical acts like Metallica (at the 2014 Grammy Awards), Herbie Hancock (2008 Grammy Awards), Julio Iglesias, and dubstep dancer Marquese Scott. He enjoys playing a wide variety of genres.
“I love so many composers, from Baroque to contemporary,” he says, adding that he likes to perform different genres, even in one concert. “I enjoy every concert. Whenever I play piano I am focused 100%. It is my work and I love it,” he concludes, adding that he always looks forward, hoping his career “highlight” will be his next concert.
Piano Playing Tips from Lang Lang:
➤ I was always told to curve my hands and fingers—as though there was an egg under my palm. This is a wonderful posture for making sure the power flows directly to our fingertips.
➤ To play staccato you need to think about a beautiful, very light, very naughty cat!
➤ I think about different moods to help me play different dynamics. To play “pianissimo” I might feel very sensitive and sad. To play “fortissimo” I would change my mood—perhaps I would feel very angry or crazy.
➤ Legato playing is about keeping your fingers really connected to the keys—think about the suckers on a gecko’s feet and imagine them on your fingers.
➤ Feeling the beat of a piece of music is essential. Your solo playing will sound much more confident and effective.
➤ Use the weight of your arms to play really good “forte.”
➤ Hands and fingers develop strength and agility through daily practice. Even if the time available is short, it must be every day!
➤ The challenge with playing chords is to make sure all the notes sound together.