Lang Lang: The Pied Piper pianist of China

Be kind, global star urges parents, as budding musicians vie to join him

He was a piano prodigy who flourished despite the extreme pressure doled out by his ambitious father, but today Lang Lang warns pushy parents to back off if they want to nurture their offspring's talent.

His rebuke will come as a salutary lesson in childcare for hundreds of parents tempted to step up the hot housing after watching 100 budding musicians – aged as young as six – take the main stage with the superstar maestro at London's Southbank Centre this afternoon.

Lang, a global sensation at 28 years old, learnt the hard way about the perils of parental coercion: aged just nine, he was urged to kill himself by his tyrannical father for missing two hours of practice. Yesterday he told The Independent on Sunday that parents needed to strike a careful "balance between being strict and loosening up".

He added: "I want to tell parents who put their kids under a lot of pressure, 'This is not the way to do it'. I want people to learn this is not the way to be successful. To give your whole passion – yes; to give up a life – no. There's a balance."

Although Lang, who travels the world giving 125 concerts a year, finds it painful to relive "the most horrifying experience" of his life, he said he had chosen to speak out "to make sure that [something similar] never happens again in any country". He would certainly raise any eventual children of his own somewhat differently. "For sure," he laughed nervously: "I'd be very different from my father. I'd let the kids decide what they wanted to do."

The youngsters making up Lang's 51-strong Piano Orchestra today include six-year-old Alastair Howell, from West Norwood, who will get a solo moment playing the Rondo from Mozart's Divertimento in D. Howell is one of 12 hand-picked by the Chinese star out of more than 500 hopefuls who applied to be part of the ensemble. Lang said he hoped to be able to mentor the most promising pianists – either with a repeat collaboration next year or something more permanent.

He added that the enthusiasm – and talent – of those wanting to take part in today's concert suggested the so-called "Lang Lang effect", which has inspired 40 million young Chinese children to learn the piano, also existed in the West. Something pretty massive, clearly, has captured the imagination of those involved in the pianist's week-long residency at the Southbank Centre. Not least the French camera crew who filmed Lang Lang giving me this interview.

Then there are the 50-odd Brazilians who make up the Youth Orchestra of Bahia, which played with Lang last night. Plucked off the street in one of the poorest parts of Brazil, these impressive teenagers have only been playing their instruments for the past three or so years. I catch them practising in St John's Church, Waterloo, on Friday afternoon, where, like last night, they are conducted by the 17-year-old Venezuelan Ilyich Rivas. It's only a rehearsal but the atmosphere is electric as they zip through the Chopin and Gershwin concertos they play with the virtuoso.

From my second-floor vantage point, I watch closely for the histrionics for which Lang is famous. But the showiest thing about the spiky-haired musician is the piped white lining on his smartly cut black jacket. Later, when we chat back at the Southbank Centre, I am on equally high alert for the self-regard that even his most ardent fans feel can taint the young star. Once again, I am disappointed: the Lang I meet is more self-effacing than self-obsessed.

Even my attempt to get a rise out of him by asking how he takes the sort of criticism that has in the past seen some nickname him "Bang Bang" falls flat: "I'm still 28. To get some criticism is totally fine. Of course, I'm not perfect. I'm still learning; there's big room to improve." He does, at least, defend his famous flamboyance. "My style of playing is not going to change. I look at videos from when I was six and I play like this. You never lose your signature."

This, though, is hardly what I had expected from a man whose performance at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics was watched by a global television audience of 4.5 billion, and who has trademarked his own name and turned himself into a brand in the vein of David Beckham or Paris Hilton.

As well as a Lang Lang range of Steinway & Sons pianos, there are branded Montblanc watches and a Lang Lang line of black-and-gold Adidas trainers. And that's not forgetting his Lang Lang International Music Foundation, which he set up to cultivate "tomorrow's top pianists".

Lang, who, to get to where he is today, endured years living apart from his mother in a Beijing slum, regards himself as something of a missionary when it comes to inspiring others, regardless of their nationality. "Music is for the world," he tells me earnestly, in his heavily accented English. "As musicians, we are citizens of the world and we need to really share our love and passion with everyone."

While he is keen to stress that success must not come at too heavy a price, he does admit that there are no shortcuts to reaching the top. "Everybody can achieve their dream in different ways, but unfortunately in the music world there is one way to be successful, which is to never stop practising. This is something you can't avoid, no matter how talented you are. I made my career today through really hard practice."

In case anyone takes too dim a view of the father who told the vulnerable nine-year-old first to overdose and then to throw himself off their 11th-floor balcony, Lang emphasises just how desperate he was to be a great pianist.

"When I was five, I was playing a recital and I just felt this was for me. I felt it was the coolest thing and the coolest profession."

Tens of millions of young wannabe Langs around the world clearly agree; all the man himself would add is there is a limit to how far they need to be pushed to make it.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders