Lang Lang’s Journey to No. 1

UPDATED: March 1, 2010
PUBLISHED: March 1, 2010

You know you’ve made it in the world when an
Adidas sneaker bears your name. But this shoe muse
is no athlete; he’s 27-year-old Chinese-born pianist
Lang Lang.

Arguably the most successful classical pianist our generation
has seen, Lang Lang (pronounced long long) is a wunderkind, with
more than 1 million CDs and DVDs sold, hundreds of sold-out
concerts across the globe, and a distinguished résumé that would
make even his recent collaboration partner, Herbie Hancock, offer
his admiration.

Superstardom in the classical music world didn’t come easily for
Lang. He left rural China at age 9 to gain access to quality teachers, and
he spent countless miserable nights in a Beijing slum. His father forced
him to practice for most of his waking hours in an obsessive attempt to
make Lang No. 1, and Lang now admits he feels he lost part of his childhood
while honing his craft.

But speak to Lang today, and you’ll hear nothing but love and dedication
to the art of piano, a testament to his ability to overcome even the most severe
conditions and still pursue his passion. This personable and down-to-earth
musician can’t walk the streets of his native China without being
swarmed by fans for autographs and photos.

On this day, Lang, whose first name means “brightness and sunshine,”
is in an East Coast hotel room preparing for the evening’s performance.
His typical performance-day warm-up isn’t too rigorous—by choice.
“When on tour, I’ll just find a piano and play for about two hours,” Lang
says. “Too much practice is not good.”

Lang has come a long way since those early years of privation and
endless practice. Today, he seeks to show young people the fun he
finds in classical music, which even translates to his footwear. Adidas
Originals designed a gold-and-black piano-themed sneaker, with Lang
Lang’s name scribbled in Chinese and a silhouette of the piano star in
action. “When you think of classical music’s image, it’s very serious and
elite, while sneakers represent youth,” he says. “I’m trying to interest
young people in classical music, so it was really a good fi t.” Lang also
has endorsement deals with MontBlanc, Sony and Audi.

Considering his impressive repertoire, Lang’s shoe deal is almost
a fun fact among a career of superlatives. Time magazine pegged him
one of the 100 most influential people in the world for the effect he’s
had on young musicians. His 2008 performance at the Olympics’
opening ceremony in Beijing proved—in front of an audience of 5
billion—that Lang Lang is a rock star in the classical music scene.

In the West, classical music is still “an old-fashioned art superseded
by rock, hip-hop and other pop forms,” Lang says. But in the
restrained country of China, millions of children flock to learn classical
music—more than 40 million playing piano alone—because it’s
considered “the new fashion,” Lang says. “Every time I play a concert
in China, 90 percent of the audience is younger than 21 years old.”

This youth interest in classical music is a phenomenon coined by
the Today show as “the Lang Lang effect.” He recently ranked among
Billboard’s top classical musicians of 2009, finding company with
Placido Domingo, Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. And Lang
continues to tour the world, logging 100 to 150 concerts a season—
including a summerlong collaboration tour with Herbie Hancock and
a performance together at the 2008 Grammys.

“A journey of a thousand miles
begins with a single step.”
—Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu

And while he enjoys the journey these days, his 2008 autobiography,
Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story, reveals his parents’
less than gentle nudge toward piano and how his policeman father
mercilessly pushed him to succeed in the ultracompetitive musical
conservatories of Beijing. Before Lang was 2, his parents spent half
their yearly income on a piano for their son. He first performed in a
piano competition of 500 children by age 5—and won.

At age 8, Lang left his mother and his modest Shenyang home
and moved 12 hours away to Beijing with his father. He focused all
his time on gaining one of only 15 spots in his grade of the Central
Conservatory of Music. Three thousand children would apply.

Lang tells of bitter winter nights spent in their Beijing slum apartment
without heating. “When I practiced, my father would wrap me
in layers of blankets and clothing. I would play the piano all evening
just to keep warm,” he says. “I’d even play late into the night to avoid
having to climb into my bed that was so cold.”

Lang describes his time spent in Beijing as difficult at best, as he
practiced to not only hone his craft, but also to live up to his father’s
expectations of perfection. “You must play perfect. You must not
make a mistake. Not one mistake,” Lang’s father would tell his young
son. Lang explains that in China, the phrase No. 1 is used in place of
the word best—the No. 1 manufacturer, No. 1 businessman or No. 1
singer. Lang’s father once told him, “Being No. 1 is a realistic goal to
be achieved through dedication. You can’t control… a competitor who
has more talent than you. But you can control how hard you work.”
Lang unquestioningly used this philosophy to carry on, often practicing
the piano eight hours a day, stopping only for meals and sleep.

This kind of fierce commitment led to entrance
into the conservatory and dozens of first-place
finishes in international competitions, with one
in particular earning Lang the praise from his
father he so desired. “After this great victory, Lang
Lang, your life will never be the same,” his father
told him.

Lang went pro at age 17 after leaving China to
move to America. And indeed, his life was never
the same. With time, Lang would learn that the
tumultuous relationship with his father was
borne of his father’s dedication and discipline in
nurturing his son’s raw musical talent. He speaks
of his father without disdain or self-pity, just in a
matter-of-fact tone that says this is what it took to
become the success he is now.

Ask Lang Lang what special techniques or
philosophies he employs to excel in his musical
craft, his creativity or his career, and he probably couldn’t tell
you. That’s how geniuses are. Einstein couldn’t tell you the
way his mind worked, just that he instinctively knew the right
answer every time. Einstein didn’t think in words, but rather
pictures or movement. Lang Lang thinks in music. Professing
that music is his first language, Lang says for as long as he can
remember, he’s had a kind of soundtrack playing in his head,
accompanying his life’s most memorable moments. “I heard
etudes and concertos, sonatas and great symphonies. I heard the
harmonies and counterpoints. I heard the action of the music. To
me, music was action.”

Appropriately so, Lang admits he plays the piano, quite literally,
in his sleep. He once was confronted on a flight by his firstclass
neighbor, who complained that a dozing Lang was moving
his fingers in the air like he was playing a piano concerto in his
sleep and knocked over the man’s drink.

While Lang didn’t have a typical youth, he says he’s “like
a super-teenager now. I have parties every night after every
concert and spend time with my friends.” Free time also includes
attending sporting events and watching his favorite teams—
the L.A. Lakers, the Philadelphia Eagles and Barclays Premier
League soccer team Manchester United.

You won’t find him in the media much, except for attending
high-toned events such as the awards ceremony for the Nobel
Peace Prize. He’s easy to spot, though, with his spiked black hair
and sleek tone-on-tone suits. He’s proven that classical music
doesn’t have to be stuffy. And Lang has certainly proven that the
journey to becoming No. 1 begins with a single step.

Journalist, podcaster and southpaw Shelby Skrhak is the former director of digital content and social media for Before joining SUCCESS magazine, Shelby launched the weekly suburban newspaper Plano Insider, and covered topics ranging from cops and courts to transportation and fashion. Her handwriting should be a font.