Lang Lang on the Keys to Success
At the age of 31, Chinese pianist Lang Lang says he has already entered the second phase of his career.
He’s firmly at the top of the classical music world’s A-list, with repeated gigs accompanied by top orchestras and high-profile performances such as the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee last year.
Now, his focus is on the next generation of musicians. His Lang Lang Foundation funds youth programs for aspiring piano players, including those from poor neighborhoods in inner-city Boston, while his music school in Shenzhen is mentoring top Chinese talent, including child prodigy Johnson Li who has already played Carnegie Hall twice. Next, he wants to build an international-class conservatory.
Perhaps the world’s most recognizable classical musician, Lang Lang continues to tour, record and maintain an enormous array of endorsements including Volkswagen, Allianz, Telefonica, Bombardier and China Merchants Bank. His business juggernaut also includes a private club in Guangzhou and, soon, a line of fragrances.
In October, the United Nations named him as one of its messengers of peace.
The native of Shenyang, in the Chinese province of Liaoning, spoke to the Journal in Hong Kong about the importance of liberal arts, his pre-performance routines and why his focus has shifted from endorsements to education. Edited excerpts:
Some people have called China’s recent obsession with learning the piano as the Lang Lang effect. What do you think of that?
There are 50 million kids learning piano now in China. If you asked me 10 years ago, I’d be worried. Back then, the parents were so pushy. Now, it’s much better. Back then, it was four grandparents, mother and father—everything is on one child.
Are Chinese parents really serious about practicing?
People think they’re serious, but they’re not that serious anymore. Most of the kids want to learn. They can end up like pop star Jay Chou or Lady Gaga or Alicia Keys or Herbie Hancock. A lot of my classmates in Juilliard were Asian, but it’s not like today. The head of Juilliard piano has 25 students—23 are Chinese. Some are American-Chinese. But it’s incredible. The thing is, when Asian students are practicing hard, it makes the American students practice hard.
At what age can you tell whether a child is destined to have a career as a soloist?
It’s hard to tell. For me, I was 12 when I knew I was going to have a career. But Johnson Li is 10 years old. If he has the right direction, he can become a professional.
What is your advice for the top talent coming from your school?
To go step-by-step, and to study in Europe and the U.S. For classical music, it’s so important to know Western culture. It’s the key. For China, we’re building pretty good basic education. It’s very good. That’s why I want to build a conservatory that will really become an international level. My school—Central Conservatory [of Music in Beijing]—is very good, but in the world, it’s still not Top 10.
Why is exposure to the West so important?
It’s because it’s where the music comes from. Music is like a language. It’s about the style and the accents. In China, you can learn if you have a great teacher. Now, it is better than before because it is much more open.
You’ve said that a well-rounded education in Western liberal arts is important for a musician. Why?
I had an American teacher who taught me Shakespeare,[Victor] Hugo and other Western literature. His name was Richard Doran, and he was the chairman of the board at Curtis [Institute of Music] at the time. My teacher, Gary Graffman, said, “You are good at music, but you need to know more about Western society, and socialize with them.” So he introduced me to Richard. I’d go to his house and read Shakespeare out loud. And he took me to all the major events. You need someone to lead you to another culture, especially for us, the Chinese. We’re very close, family-oriented people. If I go somewhere with my father, I stay close to my father. Asian boys are shy in a Western social environment. So, every time when my friends come to the U.S., I say, “Don’t hang with me. Go hang out with Americans. Otherwise you just talk to Chinese all the time. You won’t change anything.”
How do you choose your concerts?
When you start a career, you take whatever you can get. At the beginning, I went to the most incredible little cities in America, like Fort Collins, Colorado, or some satellite city outside of Omaha that had an orchestra that played one concert a year. I was fortunate to be chosen. I was a super bench player. If someone was sick, I’d play. One day, my friend, the violinist Leila Josefowicz, couldn’t play. She was supposed to play in a small town, Ruidoso, in the middle of the desert in New Mexico. Later, you get to choose. Now, I like to go back to places I have a personal attachment to. But in our world, if you play a bad concert, you won’t get invited back. I don’t think about where I go too much. You think about keeping the quality.
What do you do to get ready for a concert?
Normally, I have a very late lunch. I walk a bit. I go to the concert hall and practice a bit. Around 6 p.m., I take a power nap. I like to eat chocolate—like a dark, rich truffle—just a little bit before I play. You need to be a little bit hungry when you play. Then after the concert, you have a good meal.
We heard you have a new fragrance line coming out.
We will have it next year. A French distribution company called Firmenich—they do Armani and Dior—were looking for an Asian for a line of perfumes. We decided to release it in Europe first. I love perfumes. I never have time to wash my suit. When I’m travelling, sometimes the smell isn’t very pleasant. And when I’m on stage, I don’t only want to smell the piano. Sometimes, when they tune a piano, you smell this oil, or a glue kind of smell. It’s weird.
You have many businesses and endorsements outside of classical music.
When you’re 20 years old, you think endorsement deals are so important. But you cannot change anything with an endorsement deal.
Do pianists and musicians peak?
I can get better and better. I’m better than 10 years ago. A lot of musicians get depressed. If you don’t have mental problems, you can go long. I don’t want to switch my career. It’s a demanding life, but as long as I do it well, I’ll be happy.