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Paying the price for performance

At just 26 years old, Lang Lang is one of the most popular classical musicians today and he captivated the crowd at the Olympics Opening Ceremony in Beijing.  In his autobiography,  "Journey of a Thousand Miles," the Chinese pianist writes about how he has come so far.
/ Source: TODAY

At just 26 years old, Lang Lang, a former child prodigy, is one of the best-known and most popular classical musicians today, and he captivated the crowd at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing. Lang Lang, who won his first piano competition at 5, writes about his intense dedication to his craft and the demanding expectations of his father in his autobiography, “Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story.” An excerpt.

Professor Angry
I rode on the back of my father’s beat-up bike through the streets of Beijing. We were trying to find the Central Conservatory of Music, and we knew the general direction, but we got lost. Later we would learn that the trip normally took an hour. Today it took nearly two.

As we rode through the enormous city, I couldn’t help but compare Beijing with Shenyang. In Shenyang, I was known as a brilliant little pianist; my picture had been in the paper. In Beijing, I was nobody. In Shenyang my father was a high-ranking police officer; people feared and respected him. In Beijing he was ignored, just a man riding a thirdhand bicycle with a chubby boy on the back. In Shenyang we knew every street, every road and back alley, which we drove through on his police motorcycle. In Beijing we got lost every few minutes. In Shenyang we were in control; in Beijing we were in chaos.

“When you meet this teacher,” my father said, “all will be well. She will see your talent and show you how to improve. You will improve enough to win admittance to the conservatory in a year and a half, and from then on you will be taught by the country’s great instructors. So it’s important to impress this woman. Today you must play perfectly.”

I was prepared to play perfectly — if we were going through the misery of living in squalor in Beijing, I was not going to fail. One way or another, I would impress this teacher.

From the moment I met my new teacher, I felt her anger. I had been expecting someone like Professor Zhu, someone who would enjoy my playing and encourage me with praise and support, but Professor Angry — my name for her — was impatient and cold. A short woman with very small hands, she was not in the least impressed with my playing. She never said I had talent or potential. She never said, as most musicians had been saying, that I was extremely advanced for my age, that I played with emotion and technical fire. She never offered me a single compliment. After I played each piece, she would nod and say, “Okay.”

In addition to being a teacher, tutoring students hoping to enter the conservatory, she was a professor employed by the conservatory. “That’s why it’s important,” my father said as we left after that first lesson, “that you follow her every instruction. She is the key to getting you in. She knows what the judges want and expect because she is one of the judges.”

“But why is she angry with me?”

“That’s not anger,” my father said, correcting me. “That’s professionalism. She has no time to coddle. She’s not a mother who pampers a child. She’s a high-ranking professor with a job to do. Her job is to challenge you. Your job is to listen to her.”

“I don’t like her,” I said as I got on the back of the bike and we headed into traffic. The afternoon pollution had set in and the air was a dirty shade of brown. 

“You don’t have to like her,” my dad yelled back. “You just have to mind her.”

My new life in the power city of Beijing consisted in taking lessons from Professor Angry, practicing, and going to elementary school.

I didn’t mind the practicing. When Professor Angry gave me difficult pieces to learn, I enjoyed the challenge. If I learned them quickly, I knew I would impress her.

But I never did impress her, or if I did, she never let it show. The only feeling she ever expressed was disappointment.

“Your meter is wrong,” she’d say. “Your phrasing is awkward. You don’t understand what the composer had in mind.”

“You play like a Japanese samurai who killed himself in the end.”

“You play like a potato farmer.”

“You play like plain water, with no taste. You should be playing like Coca-Cola.” Coke had only recently come to China and it was very popular. When I asked her how to make Coca-Cola, the bell would inevitably ring, and she would tell me my lesson was over.

She told me that I played without focus, with no musical sense. During the Cultural Revolution, people threw the great recordings from Horowitz, Rubinstein, and Schnabel out the window and destroyed the scores. She said that I played just like those people, as if I were throwing music out the window, that I had no sense of music making, just crazy fantasies.

I was alarmed by her criticism, but my father wasn’t. “This is the real world,” he said. “Shenyang was a fairyland. Here teachers don’t mince words. She’s tough, and that’s good. That’s what you require.” In fact, I later learned that Professor Angry had been taught in just the same way by her piano teacher.

The mild weather soon turned bitter cold. There was no heating in our apartment — none at all. We were living on the money my mother was sending from Shenyang, $150 a month, but that was barely enough to pay the rent, pay for lessons, and buy vegetables, eggs, and an occasional piece of chicken. There was no money to buy even a small space heater, and of course a TV was out of the question. When I practiced, my father bundled me up in layers of clothing. I would wear two pairs of pants and two shirts. The heat of my playing kept my hands warm. In fact, I would play long into the night to keep from having to climb into a bed that was so cold I couldn’t sleep. Wanting to be sure I got a good night’s rest, my father would get in the bed before me to warm it up.

But my late-night practicing was more than just a survival tactic. It was a compulsion for me as well as for my father. “If you practice more,” he repeated, “you will finally please the teacher. You must please this teacher at all costs.” I couldn’t stand the idea of not living up to her expectations. If that meant working harder, so be it. But I also couldn’t stand the idea of pleasing this teacher who never thought I was any good.

At first I practiced after dinner until 7:00. Then until 8:00. Then until 9:00, 10:00, sometimes even 11:00. The walls of the apartment building were thin, and neighbors on all sides — even those from adjoining buildings — began complaining.

Stop the racket!”

“That music is driving us crazy!”

“I’ll kill you if you don’t stop!”

“I’ll break your hands!”

“I’ll call the cops!”

“Ignore them,” my father would say flatly. “Keep practicing.”

If they persisted in complaining, he’d answer them with screams of his own. “My boy is a genius! You are lucky to get to hear him play for free! One day people will pay good money for the privilege!”

Eventually someone did call the cops. One night there was a big bang on the door. “Police!” a voice bellowed. “Open up!” Two stern-faced officers barged in, as if to apprehend a couple of criminals.

“Where’s your local work permit?” they asked my father. “Where is your resident permit for Beijing?”

My father didn’t have a work permit. His only job was making sure I got into the music conservatory. And we didn’t have enough money for resident papers. He admitted that he was without papers.

“That’s a serious violation,” they said. “Besides that, there’s a code that prohibits excessive noise after 8:00.”

I was frightened. Would they send us back to Shenyang?

“Look, guys,” my father finally said. “I was a police officer. I headed up the vice squad in Shenyang. Here is my uniform, and here are my official papers.” He showed both to the policemen as he kept talking. “I know how tough it is to be a cop, and I know you guys are just doing your job. But this is an exceptional situation. My son is a genius and on the brink of greatness. Here are several articles written about him in the Shenyang newspaper.”

My dad kept those articles on him at all times. The cops read them carefully and compared the picture of the boy in the newspaper with me. They could see my father wasn’t lying. “I gave up my work to dedicate my life to my son and his talent,” my father continued. “We live off my wife’s modest salary. She had to stay behind to support us. Financially, we are in dire straits. All we have is little Lang Lang’s willingness to practice day and night. He must. Two thousand students will audition for the conservatory, but only twelve will be admitted. We are determined that he will be among the fifteen. We are determined he will be Number One, and you can help us. In this case, help just means letting us be. We are honest, hardworking people. Please understand.”

My father spoke with such eloquence and passion that the policemen turned from stern to sympathetic. They both patted me on the top of my head and told my father that he was right, that he was a good dad with a good son, and that the city of Beijing needed more citizens like us.

“Good luck,” they said to me before leaving. “We hope you win admission to the conservatory.”

My father may have been a great debater, but he was a lousy cook. He overcooked vegetables and even had a hard time making rice. Eating his tasteless meals made me miss my mother even more. Back home, she had made delicious dumplings or pork or fresh fish every evening. With my father, there was no joy in cooking or eating. We saved money by buying cheap food, and my mother did the same in Shenyang, spending less than ten dollars a month on food for herself.

At that time, the neighborhood of Feng Tai was on the city line of Beijing, out in the middle of nowhere. I missed my friend Mark Ma and my schoolmates from Miss Feng’s class. There were other music students from Shenyang who had also moved to Beijing and had won admission to the conservatory — older children who were living with their mothers — but they were strangely distant and cold to me and my father.

“Why aren’t they being nice?” I asked my father.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe they are jealous of you. Maybe they think you will make them look bad.”

“But they were so friendly back in Shenyang.”

“Beijing is not Shenyang. Beijing changes people. Don’t worry about them. Just worry about practicing. You aren’t practicing enough.”

So I practiced even more.

And at elementary school, kids who themselves were from the sticks — we lived so far from the center of Beijing that the neighborhood could hardly be called sophisticated — made fun of my accent, calling me “Little Farmer from the North.”  “Oh, the farmer plays piano,” they would taunt me. “What kind of sound do you think he can make?”

Professor Angry had given me one of the difficult Beethoven variations to play. “Phrase it delicately,” she told me. “Don’t play it heavy-handedly.” I welcomed her direction. I took up the challenge. I tackled the piece enthusiastically. I practiced it until my fingers ached, until I thought I had mastered it. As I rode to my lesson on the back of my dad’s rickety bike through the pouring rain, I heard the piece inside my head. The notes rang out. My fingers motionlessly danced over an invisible keyboard. I didn’t see the bicycles, cars, and buses; I didn’t see the traffic lights and the throngs of pedestrians. I saw Beethoven’s story about finding one’s way through a complex maze. When we arrived at Professor Angry’s studio, she hardly looked at me. She seemed nervous and, as always, impatient.

“Begin,” she said.

After a few minutes she stopped me, saying, “You’re playing this piece like you’re afraid of it. You’re playing too lightly.”

“You said to play it delicately,” I reminded her.

“No, I didn’t.”

She had, and I wanted to remind her again, but I was a little boy and she was a distinguished teacher. I held my tongue. 

I continued playing.

“Too light,” she said. “Too tentative. You must approach this with a heavier hand.”

“But, Professor —” I began to say.

She cut me off. “No ‘buts’ about it. You must pay attention to my directions or I can no longer teach you.”

Her threat frightened me.

“If this piece is too challenging, I can give you something easier.”

My father broke in and said, “Lang Lang doesn’t want anything easier. He wants something harder.”

“You,” said the teacher, “how can I give him something harder if he comes here unprepared?”

“He will never again come here unprepared,” my father promised.

But I’m not unprepared, I thought. I know this piece. I can play this piece. I know every note. Professor Angry gave me one set of instructions, and then changed her mind when I followed them. Now she is not telling the truth. She is a liar.

“She is your teacher, and she is the only way you’re getting into the conservatory!” my father screamed at me as we approached the stand where he had locked his bicycle.

“But she’s crazy!” I said. “She tells me how to play a piece, and I learn it that way. Then, when I follow her instructions, she scolds me and says play it another way.”

I got on the back of the bike, and my father, still enraged, headed out into traffic. Only this time he was not in the bicycle lane but in the car lane. His anger was causing him to lose his good sense. Cars sped past on either side of us, their drivers shouting and honking.

“You’re so stupid!” my father yelled, ignoring the cars that were practically sideswiping us. “You’re so lazy! You aren’t listening to the teacher, and you aren’t playing what she wants to hear!”

My father steered the bike erratically. I had my arms around his waist, but it was difficult to hold on.

“You are ruining your chance for success! You are being stubborn by playing the way you want to play — and defying the teacher!”

“I’m not!” I screamed back, tears streaming down my face, the wind biting my eyes. “I’m trying!”

“You’re not trying hard enough!”

“I can’t try any harder!”

“Then you are a fool and an idiot!”

With that, he jerked the handlebars of the bike to the right to avoid a truck. The move was so sudden that I lost my grip and started falling to the street. Just when I felt myself slipping off completely, my dad managed to catch me. While still pedaling, he brought me back up with his right hand and held on until I was able to steady myself, but he continued to ride in the car lane and, under his breath, still spoke of how poorly I had performed for the exalted professor.

That night I practiced the piece according to my new directions. I knew I had no choice, but I also knew that I was dealing with a teacher who wouldn’t be happy with me no matter what I did. When I returned to her studio a week later and played the Beethoven with more force, she shook her head.

“Something is still missing,” she said.

“What?” I wanted to know.

She didn’t have an answer for me.

“You’re not listening to me!” she shouted.

“I’m trying,” I said helplessly.

“Don’t talk back to the professor!” my father screamed.

I fought back tears, and because I was so upset, I made several mistakes when I played the piece again.

My father was furious. That night he threw a hard leather shoe at me. The anger behind his action hurt even more than the blow.

“You are letting us all down,” he said. “You are letting down your mother, you are letting me down, you are letting down yourself! You are bringing shame on your family!”

His accusations against me got wilder. He had never talked to me this way before. He’d had no need to. I was a star pupil in Shenyang, but in Beijing I had lost my shine, and the more Professor Angry criticized me, the crazier my father became. Deep down, he may have detected the inconsistency of her critiques, but because he was a man who respected authority implicitly, he wasn’t prepared to challenge her. I felt hopeless and filled with despair.

Things have to get better, I thought to myself. But they only got worse.

Excerpted from "Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story" by Lang Lang © 2008 by Lang Lang with David Ritz. Reprinted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of The Doubleday Publishing Group.