Classical pianist Lang Lang

The piano virtuoso explains why his latest CD is devoted entirely to the music of Chopin.

Piano prodigy Lang Lang made musical history by twice stepping in for ailing concert pianists and has played sold out recitals and concerts in every major city in the world. Born in China, he began piano studies at age 3, made his "professional" debut at 5 and entered a prestigious music conservatory at 9. He came to the U.S. in 1997 and has proven to be an artist of maturity beyond his years. On the 2008 Time 100 list, Lang Lang is also passionate in sharing music, especially with young people, and was named by NARAS as its Cultural Ambassador to China and appointed by UNICEF as its youngest Goodwill Ambassador.


Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Lang Lang to this program. The man “The New York Times” calls the hottest artist on the classical music planet has just released his latest project, an all-Chopin recital called “The Chopin Album.” As I mentioned at the top, he’ll be performing a special concert at Carnegie Hall in New York on October 30th benefitting his international music foundation.

This past summer he just turned 30. Not bad for a guy who’s already made the Time 100 list. So much to get to, but first, here is some of the making of “The Chopin Album.”


Tavis: I was saying to you when we sat down that Chopin has a special place in my heart, because when I was a kid in music class I heard the music before I had a chance to know about the artist, and all I recall saying to my teacher is, “Who is this ‘Choppin’ guy?” (Laughter) “I like this guy, I like this Choppin guy.” So I get reminded of that all the time, so I came to really appreciate the work. Why take on this project now, this Chopin project?

Lang Lang: I think since I’m turning 30 I like to get some (unintelligible) – no, I’m just joking. (Laughter) For me, I always loved to play Chopin, but the strange thing is that I never actually recorded a Chopin solo album.

Tavis: Okay.

Lang: So now I think it’s time to record some of his etudes, which is everybody practice every day. He makes everybody practice really hard, but in a beautiful way. It’s not like purely technical way, but it’s such a hard fountain of passion.

Tavis: Right.

Lang: A lot of the music like the waltz, minute waltz, it’s like the first piece that every little kid playing Chopin, that’s the piece to play. I hope this recording will inspire a lot of musicians and a lot of music lovers too.

Tavis: What was your “Tom and Jerry” piece?

Lang: Oh, that was Liszt.

Tavis: Liszt.

Lang: He’s a good friend.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Lang: Yeah.

Tavis: I just remembered the “Tom and Jerry” (unintelligible) who was that? So I love the word that you used in that piece a moment ago talking about this project. You referred to this as your interpretation of Chopin, your interpretation of it, and I guess in a very real way, that’s all a pianist can do, or any artist can do, is to interpret the original’s work.

But when you sit down to interpret Chopin’s work, what are you trying to get us to hear? What are you trying to deliver to us through your unique interpretation?

Lang: As we all know, Chopin’s music is very romantic. He is basically the main person from the romantic time for creating piano music. But for me, he’s not just very beautiful, very melancholy, but he’s also very exciting and very dynamic, and sometimes we tend to forget about that.

We only talk about his beautiful part. It’s not that it’s showing his ugly part, that’s not my point. But I think he also has a lot of passion, and such incredible energy, intensity. It needs to come out also sometimes.

Tavis: When you were here last – I’ll come back to Chopin in a second – but when you were here last you were talking about your – you were here for your memoir.

Lang: Right.

Tavis: Your book came out when you were here last.

Lang: Right.

Tavis: Since you were here last, since you mentioned turning 30 a moment ago, your father put a book out about his life with you.

Lang: Right. (Laughs)

Tavis: It was beautiful, because you wrote your, your book was dedicated to your father, who was very tough on you when you were a kid, your father was, very tough on you. So you dedicated your book to your father. You’re now 30, and your father wrote a book earlier this year about his life with you. What most moved you, what most touched you about what your father had to say about you in his book?

Lang: I was crying when I was reading his book. At the moment it’s only in Chinese, but I assume it’ll be translated. I realized, actually, he was, at that time he was already a very warm person, but he’s trying to hide his emotions. For me, it feels kind of strange, because I thought he was very strict, I thought he was very – there was no kind of crucial (unintelligible).

But actually, he really loved me so much, but in a very different way than what I thought. There are many stories he shared, like what’s the decisions, why he made those decisions, and I really respect, because after so many years, it feels like I’m just starting to realize, to really know my father as a person rather than just a father. So quite emotional when I start reading it.

Tavis: You mentioned that your father’s book is just in Chinese at the moment but soon to be translated into English, and I’m anxious to read it as I know many of your other fans are anxious to read your father’s take on his 30 years with you. What do you make of what they call the “Lang Lang effect?” That is to say that in the People’s Republic of China there are now some 40 million people –

Lang: Yeah, I’ve heard –

Tavis: – whom the experts say you are directly, you, directly responsible, for 40 million Chinese now who are taking up piano. You have really, really pushed them into this by your success. How does that make you feel?

Lang: It feels good, but at the same time I hope that the kids learning piano because they love music and they play. Sometimes the big difference that if you’re parents are pushing you to play something rather than yourself willing to do something, it’s complete two different world.

For me, every time when I started teaching kids in China or around the world, I always want to say that “Hi, guys. You need to start loving what you do first. Then you realize why you are doing it.” Otherwise, it’s actually wasting of time.

Tavis: How did you and why are you so passionate about kids? It’s impossible to talk to you for longer than two or three minutes without hearing directly from you, without feeling the passion that you have for children, for teaching them piano in this country, around the world.

You don’t have kids yet, and yet you have this passion, always have had, for kids. Where’d that come from?

Lang: Because I know how music changed my life, and I know from the very beginning, music became my best friend, and piano became my really soulmate, and how I learned from music and how I learned from the people around music. Music really takes me to another level which totally opened up my mind and gave me so much inspiration to do better in many areas.

Not just musically, but to be a better person, I would say, and to be more creative, and to communicate with different people around the world, and to basically create a better surrounding of our society. I think today, we really need to help to educate more kids, and inspire them to learn music.

It’s not because everybody will eventually become a musician, but I really hope that music will inspire them in life.

Tavis: Talk to me specifically about why you think classical music – I know you’re a lover of all kinds of music, but your specialty and your renown is in the classical field. A lot of these kids are taking up classical music. What do you think classical music has to offer young people?

Lang: I think that classical music has a very deep meaning in our heart. Maybe in the beginning it’s harder to understand. I kind of understand when you compare classical music to rock or hip-hop it takes a slightly longer time, (laughter) but just slightly.

I don’t think it takes – if it’s really difficult to understand, that means the performance is bad. I believe that great concert, great music, no matter from whether classical or from other genre, it will touch people. Just maybe some artists take more time, but when you get it, it stays there, believe me.

Tavis: I wrote this down, because I wanted to – where is it? Right here. I had this written down because I wanted to kind of walk through – because again, the work that you’re doing with young kids is so powerful and so moving for me.

So this performance at Carnegie Hall coming up is to benefit your foundation, but I want to give the audience a sense of all the different things that you do with young people, because there’s so many different programs.

So first you have the young scholars program. There are a number of these, but let me just run through a few of these and ask you to talk to me about what these various programs do. Tell me about the young scholars program.

Lang: Yeah. So at the moment we have 12 young pianists from age eight through 14 around the world. We have three in the U.S., three in Asia and three in Europe, and three from other part of the continent.

So we help them to have better opportunities to perform with one of our orchestras in such an early age, and also some of my teachers will teach them as well, give them master class. I gave them, like, three months, one master class in every three months, and some of those kids already played by themselves and also with me, three times at Carnegie Hall.

Tavis: Wow.

Lang: Yeah. So I’m really proud of the process of those kids. They’re just improving every day. You see it. When they perform, they totally share their heart with everyone. Just the openness.

Tavis: There’s another program called Lang Lang and friends live.

Lang: Oh, yeah, so this one is actually – in Carnegie Hall, we’re actually doing that. So from this concert we will have a great extras like Alec Baldwin. He will be the host. I will have my great friends Joshua Bell, the great violinist. We’ll play a duet. We will have a great jazz singer, Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Tavis: I love Dee Dee, yeah.

Lang: We will do some “Sound of Music” together, and of course we will play with six of the scholars.

Tavis: Wow. There’s the piano master class, there’s a program called the 101 pianists that we saw some footage of a moment ago, there’s the in-school music program, and of course many people saw you and those three kids on Oprah Winfrey. The kids you took on “Oprah” and that.

I can’t imagine that they will ever forget that for as long as they live, being with you on national TV, on Oprah’s show, all four of you, you and these three kids playing together. That’s the kind of stuff that changes lives.

Lang: For me, that was a really highlight of our foundation, to be part of searching the smartest kids on the planet and I had a great chance to take those three kids to play with me on that stage. It was beautiful.

Tavis: This may be a silly question, but let me ask because I’m curious as to your take on this. Do you think that you’re still getting better as an artist?

Lang: I think this year the performance, from my understanding, is better than last year somehow. Maybe I slept more this year. (Laughter)

Tavis: But when you say – because every time I hear you, obviously I’m not a critic, but every time I hear you I think you’re all that and then some. So when you say you’re getting better and you think your performances this year were better than last, what’s your unit of measurement? How do you come to this conclusion that you’re better now than you were a year ago? Based on what?

Lang: That’s a great question. I’m trying to say it in a more accurate way. First of all, every year you learn a lot of things, and in one year time you are actually working with a lot of musicians. Like last year I had the great privilege to work with Herbie Hancock.

Tavis: Oh, yeah.

Lang: To work with the great conductor who played in opening London Olympics, Sir Simon Rattle. Also, I met so many great artists from the pop world as well, and watching live shows, live concerts, live operas. So all those things are actually, you learn those things in your own piano playing, and that actually gives you a different dimension on the keyboard.

So for sure, experience, learning experience and actions – action, concerts, whatever you see – that certainly helps.

Tavis: Because I love and respect Herbie so much, and he’s been on this program so many times and we’ve traveled the world together for different events, when you get a chance to spend time with a guy like Herbie Hancock, what do you learn from Herbie? What do you take away from the experience of playing with a guy like Herbie Hancock?

Lang: Herbie has the most beautiful touch on the keys. Every note he touches, that’s like a diamond. For me, to have that touch, to hear that and to play four-hand and to learn that kind of touch, it’s really an amazing experience.

Also with Herbie he has so many great friends, like Quincy Jones.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter)

Lang: I met Quincy already five times. We talk about music, talk about his legendary lifestyle, all those things.

Tavis: I’ve got to send this tape to Q. I love that – “his legendary lifestyle.” That was put very nicely. Q does have a legendary lifestyle. Love him. So tell me more about what’s on the Chopin project.

Lang: We have 12 etudes, which is very difficult to perform, but on the DVD part there’s a video that shows when I was 13 years old, playing the same etudes. So hopefully I got a little bit –

Tavis: A little better?

Lang: Yeah, (unintelligible). (Laughter) Then in the same recording you hear the most beautiful Chopin nocturnes, which is I would say the most beautiful evening songs that you can enjoy. So etudes is the daytime and nocturnes –

Tavis: Is the night – yeah.

Lang: – (unintelligible) nighttime. (Laughter)

Tavis: To your earlier point, what makes the etudes so difficult to play? When you say it’s difficult to play, given how proficient you are, then I take your word – it must be really difficult to play if you say that. But what makes it so difficult to play?

Lang: Some of the etudes, like the “Winter Wind,” it’s so difficult. Those fingerings, when you switch the hands, the fingerings are really hard to play even. But even it’s just a very – it’s already difficult, but it’s only level one.

How to make those runs are really like winds, and really like roller coasters, in the most beautiful, artistic ways, rather than playing like a scale, like your neighbors. So that takes time, so you need to have both physical power balanced and mentally balanced, so that takes a lot of time to practice.

So this is just the technical side, right? But also there’s some music – I still remember when I was a kid, I felt this is beautiful music, but I didn’t really understand what’s supposed – the meaning, like, under the notes. Now I start to play, I’m kind of starting to digest, almost like drinking a cup of tea and digest very good.

Tavis: To your point about the technical proficiency that you have to have to play some of these etudes, I remember one time having a conversation with Prince, who is a friend of mine. We’ve talked so many times over the years. Prince and I were having a conversation one time and I’ll never forget it as long as I live, because the conversation was specifically about how he knew that he was – I want to paraphrase this the right way.

The conversation was about how he knew that he was playing his best, that he was really giving the kind of interpretation that he wanted to give. Now of course he isn’t playing classical stuff, but the conversation was really about the fact that critics will tell you, music critics, as you know, will tell you when they think you’re on, when they think you’re off, when they think you’ve got it just right, when they think you’ve had a horrible performance.

Critics can tell you that, but so often these critics aren’t anywhere near as proficient, obviously, as you are. They’re critiquing you, but they couldn’t do it if you had a gun to their head. So people can critique Prince or Lang Lang all day long – put the guitar in their hand, they fail. Put them at the piano, they couldn’t do what you do.

I say all that to ask how it is that you know when you’ve got this thing just right. It can’t be because the critics tell you that. There’s got to be something beyond the critics. So how do you know when you get Chopin just right or whatever it is you might be playing, when you’ve nailed that thing? How do you know that?

It’s something you feel? Is there somebody who tells you that, somebody whose opinion you trust? How do you know when you have it just right?

Lang: It’s a combination. First of all, yourself knows where is the problems. You really know –

Tavis: You can feel that.

Lang: You really feel that, yeah. Then you practice all those problems. Then you need to find someone who really understands who you are, like for example, in the past, it was my father. It was my piano teachers. But of course when you’re turning 30 you can’t always have them next to you, right?

So you need to find some music friends who really know what you’re doing, and then they start listening to maybe you send a recording to them or just download your live concert, and then get a second opinion.

Then in the same time, to listen to some other recordings, great pianists from the past, like Arthur Rubinstein, and to get some ideas like how great musicians are interpreting the same work 50 years ago, to see how do you do it now in the 21st century, but still kept the tradition old.

Then of course when you get a lot of comments about your playing, it’s very good things. But if you listen carefully with every comment, then it drives you nuts. Because some people say, “Oh, I think this should be like that. Oh, I think this should be the opposite.” Then what I’m going to do? Listen for a whole day and the fighting?

So you need to find your own way and to believe it. You need to be confident with what you’re trying to do, but at the same time try to open your ear for good suggestions.

Tavis: I take that. I found this to be fascinating, and I’m sure you know this, having done your research on Chopin. Chopin, 30 public appearances in a lifetime. Lifetime. Thirty public appearances. Lang Lang, 130 appearances every year. (Laughter) Chopin, 30 appearances, lifetime. Lang Lang, 130 appearances per year. What do you have to say about that, Lang Lang?

Lang: It’s a different time. (Laughter) It would take a whole day from one village to another village. Now from Europe to America it takes a few hours.

Tavis: You’re doing a lot – that’s a lot of playing, though.

Lang: Yeah. But one thing – Chopin was also a great composer, and he need to write every day. The good thing about me is that we don’t have that challenge because there are already so many great works, so. (Laughter)

Tavis: But is composition something that you want to do more of at some point?

Lang: I can do ringtones. (Laughter) So if you need a 30-second, you call me.

Tavis: Like you said, it’s a different era. Chopin was not doing ringtones. That’s funny. You know what? I can’t top that, so I’m going to close this conversation now.

The new project from Lang Lang is called “The Chopin Album.” Some wonderful, wonderful stuff on here. Of course, he’s played Chopin before, but never an entire project dedicated to Chopin, so I think Lang Lang fans like yours truly will want to add this to your collection. I’m so glad to have you on.

Lang: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Tell your parents I said hello.

Lang: Thank you.

Tavis: You come back any time.

Lang: Yeah, and next time I play some music, yeah?

Tavis: I said that to Lang. He’s been here so many times over the years and for whatever reason, probably because I can’t afford the kind of piano that he plays, to get it tuned, much less get it in here, but I swear to you the next time you come on this program, I’m going to find a piano.

Lang: Great, let’s do it.

Tavis: Because you keep coming here, and every time you come, you never play for me. So I’ve got to get a piano for you to play next time.

Lang: Great.

Tavis: You promise you’ll do it?

Lang: Absolutely. Shall we do four hands also?

Tavis: Yeah, I’ll do it with you.

Lang: Yeah, cool. (Laughter) Deal. Yes.

Tavis: I’ll do it with you. We got a deal. I’m definitely getting it now, just so I can get that on tape (unintelligible). That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for tuning in. As always, keep the faith.

[Concert footage of Lang Lang and students]

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Last modified: October 12, 2012 at 1:27 pm