Lang Lang: how to be a superstar pianist

The 31-year-old reveals how he keeps mind and fingers sharp for a gruelling schedule, and how he takes ideas from literature and painting, ahead of his Dublin show

Lang Lang performs during the Grammy Awards in January. Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Lang Lang performs during the Grammy Awards in January. Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Thu, Apr 17, 2014, 01:00

Lang Lang is one of those pianists who regularly gets showered with accolades about his technical mastery. So when I meet up with him in Birmingham, after a concert that opens with the conferral of an honorary doctorate from Birmingham City University, I begin by asking him about what goes on behind the scenes to maintain that mastery.

Does he need to be at the piano every day? “I work really hard every day. Two hours. I kind of enjoy doing it. It’s very inspiring to practise, once it’s not too long. Eight hours is probably not inspiring. I did that, of course, when I was a kid. Now I really enjoy the two hours. Open my heart, open my passion. And also it calms me down. Sometimes you really need to clear your mind in order to play the slow pieces, and to be quiet.”

For all those young players who fantasise about the day they will be able to forgo scales and exercises, the news is bad. Lang Lang is still at them.

“Less than before, but I still need to do scales. For sure. Scales are fundamental things for us. We cannot lose that. You need to [practise them]. Just to make things even. You always have basic studies, in every profession. You think you can get around it; you can’t. There are a lot of basic runs in Chopin or Mozart. If you don’t practise scales, you lose the technique.”

Practice time
Technique is something he generally deals with by addressing the difficulties of a particular piece, and slow practice is an important part of dealing with specific problems. Like a lot of pianists, he tries to identify the bigger issue that any particular difficulty might represent.

Most of his practice time is devoted to new repertoire, he says, agreeing that pianists shouldn’t practise the music they are currently performing but the music from concerts down the line.

“When you practise the new pieces, the old pieces also improve. It’s to do with the new ideas. One thing I find really helpful is to listen to my own recordings. That helps a lot. Sometimes what you hear on the stage is different from what you hear on the recording because you don’t get any emotions. When you’re playing, there’s always emotion. In a room you listen to the playback, or in a car – very quiet, like a very critical person – and then you realise this is actually not good enough. You didn’t put your emotions in there. You see it much clearer.”

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