Lang Lang: The Pied Piper pianist of China

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

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.