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.”

By way of example, he mentions that he has been working on the edits for a Royal Albert Hall DVD. He has found something there that he doesn’t like. “Today I started a new way of doing it. It’s too late, it’s already there on the recording. But for the future, at least, I know at this place I will do something different, make an improvement.”

Dublin’s ‘beautiful hall’
His performances change from night to night. In Birmingham, “I was very focused. The concert hall was very beautiful, the piano was great. So it makes the whole package better. Dublin has a very beautiful hall: it’s a very European concert hall, very traditional – you can play really soft. I think it’s going to be a very precise interpretation. I’m looking forward to it. I really enjoy playing in that beautiful, green-coloured hall.”

The programme – Mozart’s Sonatas in G, K382, in E flat, K282, in A minor, K310, and Chopin’s four ballades – is one he has always wanted to do, and he learned it three years ago. “It was very challenging. It’s repertoire that everybody knows; every student plays the Mozart. So, how to make those things convincing to ourselves, faithful to the original composition, and to have our own voice. That takes some time to polish.”

His next programme, which he will play from September (Tchaikovsky’s Seasons , Chopin’s four scherzos and Bach’s Italian Concerto) will probably be ready to record this time next year. He invokes the ageing process of red wine to suggest a progress from freshness to maturity in the way his playing changes over time.

The process of bedding-in is even more complicated when it comes to concertos. “You need to work with the conductor, with the orchestra. Start with a smaller orchestra to try it out. You need to get the musical intervals in your ears. You really need to get what the clarinet will play, the flute will play, and once everything is in there, then you will really digest how to play, how to react to their sound. Otherwise you only kind of know what the orchestra is playing. You don’t know it inside out. You need time to study.”

This is coming from a man who describes himself as both a good sight-reader and a “very fast” learner. The reading and learning, he says, don’t mean anything at all, “maybe just that I will memorise faster. Some people take three months. Maybe I take one month. When you play in a concert, people don’t care whether it took you one hour or one year. They hear what it is.”

Bringing people to tears
A lot of his work is done away from the piano, away from the printed scores. He likes “finding experiences from paintings, novels, or conversations with people from different musical genres – jazz, rock’n’roll and pop music – to get their ideas of how they create music. That actually gives a lot of nice visual ideas, colours. And also talking to artists, painters particularly. I’ve learned a lot, how they make the work, what’s the progress, what they’re seeing, trying to achieve. Talking to writers. What’s the structure of the work? Where’s the highlight? Where do you want to bring people to tears? Even though we’re not composers, we need to learn the progress of making the music.”

Some things he sounds a little blasé about. As regards technique, he says, there is nothing that won’t work out if you practise enough, adding with a laugh: “If you have the correct way of practising.”

The elusive ingredient for success, he says, is stability. “The quality needs to be very stable. It’s not like, ‘Today I play an exceptional concert, but tomorrow I am tired, I am not happy, so I play a crappy concert.’ Every night, onstage, you need to be in the same condition. That is very difficult for a lot of people. A lot of people can play maybe 20 good concerts a year.

“If you are switching repertoire, from this concerto to that, your mind needs to be very fast to react, to preserve the contents. And you need to have a very strong heart, to believe you can do it. When I look at great musicians of the past . . . Rubinstein played five different programmes in a week. How can you do that? He must go nuts.”

Some of the best musical advice he has had, he says, has come from senior colleagues. “I always want to share music. I believe the connecting part is very important.

“I have people like [pianist and conductor Daniel] Barenboim telling me how to inspire people, to create interesting projects, educational projects, to energise people’s hearts. I really look up to him. Or [conductor] Christoph Eschenbach always talking to me about the tenderness of music. Also you need to be a kind of person who’s never satisfied with yourself. The time you’re satisfied, you’re blind.”

Lang Lang plays Mozart and Chopin at the National Concert Hall on Saturday;

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