At the age of five he practised six hours a day. At nine his father told him to kill himself. At 12 he won the International Tchaikovsky Competition. Ruled by a father obsessed with success and terrified of failure, Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang had no ordinary childhood but he wouldn’t have had it any other way...
He’s aged about four, wearing a policeman’s hat too big for his little head and wielding a toy gun. His mum is there, smiling happily. Just in shot, there’s an upright piano with some pieces on its music stand. Another photograph: it’s a few months later; he’s at home, sitting at the same piano, practising in his underpants because it’s so hot.
Fast-forward seven years, and another photograph: he’s 12, practising at what looks like the same piano only this time you can see his bed jammed up close on one side (his dad’s bed, the caption tells us, is out of shot on the other). Later, as he gets older, the upright pianos turn into grands and the rooms they’re in, grand, too. But he’s there as usual – practising or being taught.
Practise, practise, practise… Welcome to Lang Lang’s childhood
In his autobiography the Chinese virtuoso recalls his daily routine, aged five, devised by his father:
5:45am: Wake up and practise piano for an hour
Home at noon for lunch: 15 minutes for eating; 45 minutes of practising
After school: two hours of practice before dinner
Dinner: 20 minutes; two hours of practice after dinner
When I meet the pianist at his hotel the morning after his appearance at the Classical BRIT Awards – he played Chopin’s Polonaise, Op.53, in A flat and was joined later by legendary jazz musician Herbie Hancock for a two-piano performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – I suggest that this punishing regime imposed on a child by its parent may, at another time and in another place, have attracted the attention of his school and social services.
“If I had my time over again I’d soften dad’s approach but not reduce my practice time,” Lang Lang replies, before admitting, ironically, that “music helped me survive my childhood”.
“It was about being Number One pianist”
“Being the best in my class, in my city, in China. My advice to a parent is that if their child loves to play the piano, they should be strict. Practising hard from the age of five is better than practising really hard from 10.”
And it “helps” to have a dad like Lang Lang’s.
The former policeman seems to have realised his own failed ambitions through his son – he had dreamed of being a professional musician but the Cultural Revolution forced the closure of music conservatoires – devising the boy’s daily schedule, monitoring his practice, even eavesdropping on other piano teachers as they taught, passing on what he learned to his son.
The father’s dedication to his son’s career was all-consuming – nothing must come between Lang Lang and being Number One pianist. Not even his mother who had to watch as her husband spirited their son 400 miles away to continue his studies in Beijing, living in the city’s slum district.
"I can talk about everything with my mother"
Thereafter, Lang Lang saw his mother only occasionally, which actually strengthened their bond. “I can talk about everything with her,” Lang Lang tells me.
Throughout his childhood, practice dominated his waking hours and could never be interrupted. His life in Beijing was Dickensian, a world peopled with larger-than-life characters: the obsessed father, an unsympathetic piano teacher Lang Lang nicknamed Professor Angry, a kindly stranger who helped ease the growing tensions between father and son.
Those tensions came to a horrifying head when Professor Angry suddenly refused to teach Lang Lang any longer, jeopardising the young lad’s chances of winning a place at the city’s conservatoire. Lang Lang’s father begged the teacher to reconsider but she closed the door in his face.
With his son’s future apparently in ruins the father urged the boy to jump from their 11th floor flat or overdose on pills. Terrified, Lang Lang beat the flat’s thin walls with his hands, willing them to break.
“Stop!” screamed his father. “I’m sorry but you can’t hurt your hands. I don’t want you to die, my son – I just want you to practice.”
Chatting to Lang Lang in the comfortable surroundings of his Kensington hotel some 18 years after this event – he celebrated his 27th birthday this June – I’m struck how painlessly he recalls it. A smile, a few words and the story is told. To all intents and purposes, it is nothing. For a hot-housed, competition-winning virtuoso whose only companions were an obsessive father and an upright piano, he seems remarkably well-adjusted.
This is the second time I have interviewed him. The first, two years ago, was when he gave me a two-hour lesson on Beethoven’s Waldstein Piano Sonata. I found him to be a warm and generous teacher, full of fresh, musical insights. His easy-going charm and good humour mask terrible suffering and self-sacrifice.
“I wrote my autobiography because nobody really knows how we musicians got to where we are,”
“All my colleagues in classical music have worked this hard, but nobody knows just how hard.”
And the work doesn’t stop. He averages three concerts per week all over the world but would like to scale back, establishing 10-day city residences where he can perform solo and chamber recitals (his next CD released in the autumn will be a disc of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky Piano Trios) and give masterclasses.
“I’ve just been resident at the Barbican and loved it,” he says. “I don’t like travelling so much. A residency is more fulfilling, and I can get used to the hotel bed!”
Between concerts and celebrity appearances – at one point an anecdote about Oprah Winfrey trips unselfconsciously from his tongue – he has established his Lang Lang International Music Foundation to encourage and support young pianists aged from six to 12.
“We choose three from the US and two in Europe. Talented kids need support in their studies,” he says, without a flicker.
The foundation’s website shows Lang Lang in typical pose – jeans and trainers, larking about and exploding the myth of the introspective virtuoso. That other brilliant virtuoso and communicator, the violinist Nigel Kennedy, has been doing a similar act for years.
But here’s the difference: despite his rock-and-roll posturing, Kennedy’s playing is loved by the critics. In the UK at any rate, they seem less warm about Lang Lang’s.
It’s his extravagant gestures at the piano that seem to bug them most. Whereas a violinist can get away with moving their body with the music – bending, swaying, screwing up their eyes as they reach for that exquisite, pitch-perfect top note – a pianist is expected to be impassive at the keyboard, a perfect example of self-control.
“A cool head but a warm heart,” as my teacher used to say. The critics say that with his swaying body and waving arms Lang Lang appears to be telling us how we should react to his playing, guiding our responses through his emotional gestures.
He loves playing the piano
Me, I just think he loves playing the piano. Music moves him and, coupled with his extrovert character, he can’t help reacting to it.
But if he wants to endear himself to the critics, and do the great composers a favour, he shouldn’t play Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 and Chopin’s Polonaise, Op.53, like he does: too flash, too fast and too much pedal masking finger slips.
Not that Lang Lang’s listening. “I respect critics but if you focus on what they say, you lose yourself,” he explains. “Who do you believe? Who do you listen to? Critics could lead you to a place where you are confused.”
If how one reacts to criticism reveals something about a person, then Lang Lang’s father emerges surprisingly well from the chapter his son has dedicated to the critics.
Lang Lang recalls his dad was especially interested in points made in the negative reviews and urged Lang Lang to listen to these “learned men”.
But Lang Lang refused, tellingly concluding that criticism was generating concert invitations: “Criticism made me controversial and funnily enough, controversy sells”.
But for how long? Lang Lang’s not wasting his time wondering. With the interview and pictures at an end it’s time for – yes – more practice. Four hours to be precise.
“I enjoy practising,” he says. “If you don’t practise, you don’t make music.”
It could be his father talking.