Lang Lang talks to Joie Chen

World-renowned pianist Lang Lang on the challenges and hardwork he faced to become the No. 1 classical pianist today

Joie Chen: You've just come from playing at the Kennedy Center. You played for a worldwide audience with Pharrell at the Grammys. I thought I was going say, “Oh, this is a busy time for you.”  But, actually you've slowed down a little bit.  What drives you?

Lang Lang: For me, I like ... concerts, and creative projects. And I think really music gives me an energy to drive myself, to always try to get to another level.  

But, you know, you have had so much success it would be easy to say, "I could cut my concert schedule in half. I could do half the number of dates."  

I mean, compared to a few years ago, it's actually reduced.I used to play 160 [recitals], and now I play 125. Something like that. I take the summer time off. 

And you do think about balance? I mean, I think that that is something that you have written, that you had to learn. Because, I guess, you had spent so much of your life, from even your early childhood, really focused on driving to be No. 1, as you've said.

I mean, of course, now, to think about No. 1 is a silly thing. But when I was a kid, I thought that there is kind of a No. 1 target. When I was a kid, I always practice, also study at school. So, it's constantly working to be focused, and to be concentrated. So, now I feel actually better. Even though I still have a quite busy schedule. Once I'm on stage, everything kind of really becomes magical, because that moment once you're on stage performing, it's timeless. 

In classical music, you've been something of an agent provocateur, that is that critics have come after you for being maybe [being] too personalized in your approach. There are going to be critics who say to you, “What are you doing to classical music?”

I think this is more question, I would say, more talk about it like five years ago. People still needed to know what I'm doing. And I need to figure out what I'm doing, too, you know. So, it's totally fine to be questioned for some approach. For me, I always realized, first we need to respect the great work, and to be quality controlled. You need to be great as a real performancer, real concert. You cannot cheat on that.  Once you cheat on your artistic approach, then you are not an artist, and you are not a pianist. So, for me that is always number one. No. 1 priority is to practice, and to get the quality up there.

To perfect that?

I mean, I try to be. And then, in art, you can be respectful to the composers, but also personal. In art, we're very liberal. There's not such a rule that you can only play Tchaikovsky in this way. You can only play Beethoven in that way. If that's the case, nobody want to become a musician. Because being a musician, there's no limit.

And similarly, you would say that about your collaborations with people like Pharrell, or Metallica. These are about musicians at the opposite end of the universe from your traditions. That's pretty out there.

I mean, the important things are quite clear. They're wonderful musicians. And as a musician, we will collaborate with great musicians, no matter what type of genre, what type of style.

Do you learn something from the experience?

Absolutely. I mean, with Metallica, I learn so much [about] harmonies, that I never played in classical music. But also, I found out the things they are doing, sometimes it's similar to some of the contemporary music we are doing. Let's say Bartok, for example. He's quite rock n' roll, with his Concerto No. 2, Concerto No. 1.

I remember reading that you were describing what you see. When you hear music, you're seeing in your mind what you're playing. How do you do that?  

With music, everybody has their own kind of tricks, how to get into your heart. Whether it's through the imagination of the pictures, or you're reading the scores. And for me it always works with the emotion approach. Approaching through pictures. And movie motion pictures. I see landscapes, I see the themes from the movies. And I mean, I just see a lot of things. And colors, somehow even though I'm actually looking into somewhere.  

‘In art, you can be respectful to the composers, but also personal. In art, we're very liberal. There's not such a rule that you can only play Tchaikovsky in this way. You can only play Beethoven in that way. If that's the case, nobody want to become a musician.’

Lang Lang

I am struck by your life and your experience, almost at each point in your life, as an outsider. Coming as an outsider to each point, that is you come from a Northern industrial city in China. Not traditionally from Beijing, not traditionally from the conservative system. You then broke into international competition. When you came to the States to study here, you were an outsider coming into it. Do you always have that sense that you're moving through as an outsider, and that you have something to prove with your music?

I don't need to prove something in the music. And breaking in experience. And I think it's a really kind of a good push. Because in our life, in everybody's life, nothing is guaranteed. Nothing just comes naturally. You really need to work harder to get.  Sometimes, you don't need to work too hard to get it. But you need to do something in order to get where you want. If I want to achieve my dreams, I need to go through some turbulence.  

And for people who have not followed your story, you lay it all out in Journey of a Thousand Miles, in your memoir. There were some very difficult periods. You and your father left your mother at home in your home city to move to Beijing under very difficult circumstances, to try to bring your career forward, to make it into conservatory. Your father, by the accounts you give, I think in the West, would be interpreted as the Tiger DadThe story that you tell, that your father told you had nothing to live for. He thought you had failed at a particular point. He suggested you commit suicide. What did you learn from that, looking back now? 

I mean, it's kind of hard thing to even think about it. It's something that I think the love became too extreme. And also, every one of my family members, my parents, and myself, we were under a lot of pressure. It's not completely my father's fault, or my fault, or my family's fault, or the teacher's fault. It just somehow when you have such a high hope, you really believe you can do it, and you really want to do it, you become very aggressive. And sometimes, you make mistakes. So, that's why even though he was brutal at times, I already almost forget about it, because we all changed. It’s become much more relaxed. That's including myself, my parents, and people who have a very high expectation in me. So, that's why, when I see some critical moment today, or when I see something kind of challenging, I'm not under such a pressure anymore. Because I know, let's find a solution. For everything, there must be a solution somewhere.

Let me ask you though, do you think you would be the artist you are today had he not driven you that hard? Had he not pushed that hard for you to succeed?

It's hard to say. Pianistic talking, the technique point, I'm actually quite grateful sometimes. Because every kid, you know, they want to play games. 

You wanted to play with Transformers.

Yes, I mean, nobody wants to practice eight hours a day. Now, I only practice two hours. But the thing is when everybody sees me playing these days on stage, people are like, “Wow! Your technique's amazing. How do you do it?” I'm like, “constant practice.” 

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You practice.

I wouldn't think to train any kid just do eight hours on something every day, just one thing. You know, eight hours. But, if you want to become a great pianist, that's the basic thing you need to do, is to constant practice. And constant concentration. You cannot say, “OK, tomorrow I feel tired I don't do it.” No, tomorrow you do it. And the day after you still need to do it. 

Another sacrifice that you made, and I will tell you that as a mother it's very hard to look at, to think that your mother let you go to pursue your dream. You and your father left her at home to work, to make money for the family. But you did not see her for long periods of time.  And I wonder what that's like for you now, looking back on it.  

I would say that's the most difficult thing for me. Growing up without my mom. That's actually harder than practice. With practice it's hard, but it's not that hard. But to not see your mother, knowing that your mom is so close to you, knowing that she still cares about you but you just can't be with her. That's really horrible, I must say. So, from nine to 19, I mean, I saw my mom occasionally. But only once in three months.

For a few days.

Yes, for a few days. And that's very hard. I still remember my mom finally came [and] I actually felt we're missing something. There's kind of a missing link between she and I. Because I suddenly became an adult, you know? After ten years. And I grew up already. So, it actually, it took me six years to reconnect. Miss my mom in the same way that when I was a kid. You know, that really connection.

Your mother let go of a little boy, and she got back a man.

Yes, something like that. She always has a dream, still today, she says, “Oh, I just dreamed of you when you were six,” or something. Of course, many moms will do that. But for her it's of slightly different, because she didn't really see me.  

Not watching you day-to-day.

It's a bit sad. But now, my mom travels me all the time. And people are like, “Oh, you're thirty-something.” But, I'm trying to find that lost ten years.


‘That was the most difficult thing for me. Growing up without my mom. That’s actually harder than practice. With practice, it’s hard, but it’s not that hard. But to not see your mother, knowing that your mom is so close to you, knowing that she still cares about you but you just can’t be with her.’

Lang Lang

You do quite a bit of work with young people, very young talents, who are also interested in piano, and also want to be like Lang Lang. Is that possible? Particularly here in the West, do you imagine a moment where classical music will have that kind of rock-star status in America?

It depends. I mean, that actually that doesn't really matter, whether it feels like rock star in America or not. Because what I'm thinking about is just there's no music class in  public schools here. And that's really kind of from day one, when I arrived in '97, my high school didn't have music class. So, I'm like, "What!"  Wow, in China every school has a music class, at least. And I'm like why [not] in America? I mean, this is considered to be the superpower. And doesn't have a music class? I just don't believe it. I really don't believe it. Then I realize this is the reality here. But first, of course, I didn't spend so much effort on that. Because there's nothing I can do, I was unknown artist. You cannot really influence on them. In 2008, I started my own foundation, because I want to change that, of course, to change that is hard.

But at least, you know, we are trying to bring awareness to the society. And also setting up a good example as a musician, that we believe music can make people happier. To make the kids more creative.  

So, we start  a school in Harlem in New York City. We start a school in Boston. We start a school in other parts of world. And so far, so good. We get a lot of students who never heard classical music, who never played piano before. They start playing songs, or start to compose songs. And they start playing Mozart. So we're starting that.  

So much of your life is now connected to America. You're still a citizen of Hong Kong. Are you American today? Are you Chinese? Who are you?

I feel that I'm a citizen of the world, today. But I am Chinese. I feel quite proud of what China has done the last ten years. The evolvement, not only economy, but also art and culture. And America is like my second home. I felt very close to particularly in the East Coast, because I grew up in Philadelphia.  

Is it still fun to play? I mean, can you play just to have fun now?

Absolutely. I mean, not  every minute, but when I start for real playing it, it's just the best thing I do.

Do you compose?

That's on my future agenda. I don't know how many works I will compose. I don't know whether I'm talented enough. 

You talk to the world a lot now on social media. What's your message about there?

I think social media is so cool because it's [the] perfect platform that you can share everyday life. But you can also share what you do. You can also share whatever you want to eat. It's personal. It's professional. You can do everything. And then sometimes, I'm checking out, "What are my friends doing on Facebook or on Twitter or on Instagram and also on Weibo," the Chinese version.  

You said you were working on a piece now that you had not played before.

I'm now working on this Rachmaninoff, the most romantic composer from Russia, his concert number one. I did number two, number three and the Paganini variation. And I now want to try a new piece. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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