Lang Lang: A Life In Music, So Far

Chinese pianist Lang Lang, at age 26, is one of the most visible, in-demand classical musicians in the world today. His concerts usually sell out (he played to an audience of 63,000 last night in New York's Central Park) and he's sold more than a million copies of his CDs and videos.

His story, published in the new autobiography Journey of a Thousand Miles, (read an excerpt) is one of fierce determination and a demanding stage father. Also, he writes about how moving to the U.S. meant abandoning what he says was a typical Chinese approach to his career: to be number one.

Lang Lang won his first piano competition at age 5. Backed by his unrelenting father, he thought the only road to success was a schedule crammed with practice and competitions. He still believed it, at age 14, when he was accepted as a student of the venerable Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

"In the first lesson," Lang Lang recalls, "I said, 'I want to be like Tiger Woods. I want to win all the big competitions.'" Graffman laughed. He asked the young pianist if he wanted a long career or short-term fame.

"I said, of course, 'long career.' He said you need to study, work hard on your piano playing, don't think about others, and one day, somebody will be not able to play in a concert. Then, if you succeed as a replacement, then you will have a career."

As with many star performers in the classical music world, Lang Lang's rise to fame came exactly as Graffman predicted. Filling in at a moment's notice for an ailing Andre Watts, Lang Lang nailed a performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was 17, and the next day papers were buzzing with talk of a new pianist who must be heard.

Since then, Lang Lang has been heard around the world, performing solo recitals, as well as concertos with the world's finest orchestras and conductors. He admits that his meteoric rise has been dizzying, but said it is beginning to give him a new view of himself as an artist. In the book, he writes of his experiences bringing music to impoverished villages in Africa as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

"During that trip," he writes, "I often thought of my own difficult childhood, but my days and nights in Africa redefined the meaning of difficulty and put many things in perspective for me. I kept remembering what Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general, told me in New York before I'd left for Africa. 'Lang Lang,' he said, 'your responsibility as an artist goes beyond music. Your art must serve people and peace.'"

Excerpt: 'Journey Of A Thousand Miles'

Cover art for the book 'Journey of a Thousand Miles'

Journey of a Thousand Miles

by Lang Lang, with David Ritz

Hardcover 240 pages

Spiegel & Grau Books

List Price $24.95

'Professor Angry' from Part Two: The Power City

I rode on the back of my father's beat-up bike through the streets of Beijing. We were trying to find the Central Conservatory of Music, and we knew the general direction, but we got lost. Later we would learn that the trip normally took an hour. Today it took nearly two.

As we rode through the enormous city, I couldn't help but compare Beijing with Shenyang. In Shenyang, I was known as a brilliant little pianist; my picture had been in the paper. In Beijing, I was nobody. In Shenyang my father was a high-ranking police officer; people feared and respected him. In Beijing he was ignored, just a man riding a thirdhand bicycle with a chubby boy on the back. In Shenyang we knew every street, every road and back alley, which we drove through on his police motorcycle. In Beijing we got lost every few minutes. In Shenyang we were in control; in Beijing we were in chaos.

"When you meet this teacher," my father said, "all will be well. She will see your talent and show you how to improve. You will improve enough to win admittance to the conservatory in a year and a half, and from then on you will be taught by the country's great instructors. So it's important to impress this woman. Today you must play perfectly."

I was prepared to play perfectly—if we were going through the misery of living in squalor in Beijing, I was not going to fail. One way or another, I would impress this teacher.

From the moment I met my new teacher, I felt her anger. I had been expecting someone like Professor Zhu, someone who would enjoy my playing and encourage me with praise and support, but Professor Angry—my name for her—was impatient and cold. A short woman with very small hands, she was not in the least impressed with my playing. She never said I had talent or potential. She never said, as most musicians had been saying, that I was extremely advanced for my age, that I played with emotion and technical fire. She never offered me a single compliment. After I played each piece, she would nod and say, "Okay."

In addition to being a teacher, tutoring students hoping to enter the conservatory, she was a professor employed by the conservatory. "That's why it's important," my father said as we left after that first lesson, "that you follow her every instruction. She is the key to getting you in. She knows what the judges want and expect because she is one of the judges."

"But why is she angry with me?"

"That's not anger," my father said, correcting me. "That's professionalism. She has no time to coddle. She's not a mother who pampers a child. She's a high-ranking professor with a job to do. Her job is to challenge you. Your job is to listen to her."

"I don't like her," I said as I got on the back of the bike and we headed into traffic. The afternoon pollution had set in and the air was a dirty shade of brown.

"You don't have to like her," my dad yelled back. "You just have to mind her."

****************

My new life in the power city of Beijing consisted in taking lessons from Professor Angry, practicing, and going to elementary school.

I didn't mind the practicing. When Professor Angry gave me difficult pieces to learn, I enjoyed the challenge. If I learned them quickly, I knew I would impress her.

But I never did impress her, or if I did, she never let it show. The only feeling she ever expressed was disappointment.

"Your meter is wrong," she'd say. "Your phrasing is awkward. You don't understand what the composer had in mind."

"You play like a Japanese samurai who killed himself in the end."

"You play like a potato farmer."

"You play like plain water, with no taste. You should be playing like Coca-Cola." Coke had only recently come to China and it was very popular. When I asked her how to make Coca-Cola, the bell would inevitably ring, and she would tell me my lesson was over.

She told me that I played without focus, with no musical sense. During the Cultural Revolution, people threw the great recordings from Horowitz, Rubinstein, and Schnabel out the window and destroyed the scores. She said that I played just like those people, as if I were throwing music out the window, that I had no sense of music making, just crazy fantasies.

I was alarmed by her criticism, but my father wasn't. "This is the real world," he said. "Shenyang was a fairyland. Here teachers don't mince words. She's tough, and that's good. That's what you require." In fact, I later learned that Professor Angry had been taught in just the same way by her piano teacher.

The mild weather soon turned bitter cold. There was no heating in our apartment—none at all. We were living on the money my mother was sending from Shenyang, $150 a month, but that was barely enough to pay the rent, pay for lessons, and buy vegetables, eggs, and an occasional piece of chicken. There was no money to buy even a small space heater, and of course a TV was out of the question. When I practiced, my father bundled me up in layers of clothing. I would wear two pairs of pants and two shirts. The heat of my playing kept my hands warm. In fact, I would play long into the night to keep from having to climb into a bed that was so cold I couldn't sleep. Wanting to be sure I got a good night's rest, my father would get in the bed before me to warm it up.

But my late-night practicing was more than just a survival tactic. It was a compulsion for me as well as for my father. "If you practice more," he repeated, "you will finally please the teacher. You must please this teacher at all costs." I couldn't stand the idea of not living up to her expectations. If that meant working harder, so be it. But I also couldn't stand the idea of pleasing this teacher who never thought I was any good.

At first I practiced after dinner until 7:00. Then until 8:00. Then until 9:00, 10:00, sometimes even 11:00. The walls of the apartment building were thin, and neighbors on all sides—even those from adjoining buildings—began complaining.

"Stop the racket!"

"That music is driving us crazy!"

"I'll kill you if you don't stop!"

"I'll break your hands!"

"I'll call the cops!"

"Ignore them," my father would say flatly. "Keep practicing."

If they persisted in complaining, he'd answer them with screams of his own. "My boy is a genius! You are lucky to get to hear him play for free! One day people will pay good money for the privilege!"

Eventually someone did call the cops. One night there was a big bang on the door. "Police!" a voice bellowed. "Open up!" Two stern-faced officers barged in, as if to apprehend a couple of criminals.

"Where's your local work permit?" they asked my father. "Where is your resident permit for Beijing?"

My father didn't have a work permit. His only job was making sure I got into the music conservatory. And we didn't have enough money for resident papers. He admitted that he was without papers.

"That's a serious violation," they said. "Besides that, there's a code that prohibits excessive noise after 8:00."

I was frightened. Would they send us back to Shenyang?

"Look, guys," my father finally said. "I was a police officer. I headed up the vice squad in Shenyang. Here is my uniform, and here are my official papers." He showed both to the policemen as he kept talking. "I know how tough it is to be a cop, and I know you guys are just doing your job. But this is an exceptional situation. My son is a genius and on the brink of greatness. Here are several articles written about him in the Shenyang newspaper."

My dad kept those articles on him at all times. The cops read them carefully and compared the picture of the boy in the newspaper with me. They could see my father wasn't lying. "I gave up my work to dedicate my life to my son and his talent," my father continued. "We live off my wife's modest salary. She had to stay behind to support us. Financially, we are in dire straits. All we have is little Lang Lang's willingness to practice day and night. He must. Two thousand students will audition for the conservatory, but only twelve will be admitted. We are determined that he will be among the fifteen. We are determined he will be Number One, and you can help us. In this case, help just means letting us be. We are honest, hardworking people. Please understand."

My father spoke with such eloquence and passion that the policemen turned from stern to sympathetic. They both patted me on the top of my head and told my father that he was right, that he was a good dad with a good son, and that the city of Beijing needed more citizens like us.

"Good luck," they said to me before leaving. "We hope you win admission to the conservatory."

Excerpted from Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story by Lang Lang © 2008 by Lang Lang with David Ritz. Reprinted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of The Doubleday Publishing Group.

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