It’s rare for a classical musician today to have mainstream appeal and garner critical acclaim simultaneously. Selling out symphony halls but having star quality beyond them is fine line to walk, but one Lang Lang does to perfection.
At only 33, the Chinese concert pianist has played with just about every top philharmonic orchestra across the world, graced the Grammy stage two years in a row–once with Metallica and again with Pharrell–kicked off the Beijing Olympics in front of more than 4 billion people, and collaborated with classical conductors like Sir Simon Rattle and jazz legends like Herbie Hancock.
As if his resume wasn’t stacked as it is, Lang also started a multi-faceted, international foundation in 2008 with the overall goal of spreading music education to young students. One program in particular under the Lang Lang International Music Foundation is Keys of Inspiration, a public school program that targets underprivileged students across the U.S. in grades 2-5.
Selected schools are equipped with a piano lab, workbooks, and a full-time piano teacher. Keys of Inspiration is currently in six schools, the most recent being Brooklyn’s PS 13: Roberto Clemente, and High Tech Elementary Explorer in San Diego, which cut the ribbon on its new piano lab just last week.
“I’d like to influence and encourage the young generation to be more confident in classical music rather than thinking this is an old style,” Lang says. “I’m trying to prove that music education matters to everybody, to every kid in the world.”
For someone as young as Lang having such a wide-spread foundation may seem a bit premature. Focusing on recording albums and playing concerts while demand is high–and physical faculties permit it–would be a logical route for most musicians. But Lang’s age is one of the reasons why his foundation is so unique. Perceptions of classical music being performed or enjoyed by strictly the senior set deteriorate when Lang’s boyish excitability and gold-striped adidas bounce into a room. Kids see someone they feel they can relate to and, as equally important, Lang can relate to them.
Despite Lang having musically-inclined parents–his father was an aspiring erhu player and his mom was a singer, dancer, and actor–Lang’s first jolt true inspiration came at age two while watching The Cat Concerto episode of Tom and Jerry. How Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 wove through the cat-and-mouse shenanigans instilled in Lang a sense of whimsy and storytelling in piano playing–all of which was nearly crushed out of him by his father.
When Lang was eight and practicing diligently to get into the prominent Beijing Conservatory of Music, a teacher told him that he wasn’t talented enough to pass the entrance exam. Stricken with shame, Lang’s father, who had always held a hard line on his son’s success with the piano, insisted Lang commit suicide.
That suffocating pressure from his father has remained as a point of conflict within Lang–without his father’s sacrifices and merciless encouragement, it’s hard to say if Lang would have risen to the height of his current career. However, he’s well aware that drilling a child in anything–let alone something as inherently tedious as learning scales–can turn them off almost instantly. Lang hopes programs like Keys of Inspiration will keep kids at that moment of wonder and excitement for classical music he felt while watching a cat at a grand piano being bested by a mouse.
“I really enjoyed playing [when I was young] because I felt that I was a different person when I was in the music world,” Lang says. “You can escape from the reality and you’re in the fantasy–that’s what I felt from the very beginning.”
Part of the fantasy for Lang is knowing how to move freely through a piece of classical music–an oxymoronic statement given classical music’s reputation for structure and tradition, but one that Lang is teaching kids, and even some music legends, isn’t necessarily the case.
“I remember when I worked with Herbie Hancock, the great jazz pianist, we were working on Ravel, a suite called Mother Goose, and he asked me, ‘Can I play like this? Can I play like that?’ I said you’re a master, you do whatever you want–why are you asking me about this? And he said, ‘Oh, that’s what I thought about classical music,’” Lang says. “Obviously there are certain things you need to respect–you’re not rewriting the piece. The thing is that the composers give you the complete freedom to express what you believe is the sincere interpretation for the piece. It’s really interesting because sometimes I record non-classical music, whether it’s pop music or rock-and-roll or hip-hop, and they are actually following the beats much more than us.”
Bringing classical music down from its high shelf and distributing it to kids who, otherwise, may never have had a chance to even touch a piano means just as much to Lang as performing. Retention isn’t necessarily Lang’s goal with Keys of Inspiration or any of the programs under his foundation. He’s more concerned with exposing children to the benefits of music education that can go beyond piano labs in a challenging, but not punishing, environment.
“I was not a very open person when I was a kid–I was kind of shy and not really connected to people. But because of music, I made so many good friends,” Lang says. “What I can tell you is that every kid who participated in [Keys of Inspiration], their regular scores are getting higher–their mathematics, their literature, and other subjects. By learning [music] you need to be disciplined. You need to have the drive. You need to have the challenge.”