The Qingdao-born violin virtuoso explains to Lauren Crothers why his life revolves around an instrument he even takes to bed.
'I started playing the violin when I was four, for about three months. But when the Cultural Revolution happened, I stopped playing. It wasn't appropriate to study western arts, so the violin had to be put on hold. I took it up again seriously when I was seven. Since I was little I'd always wanted to be a violinist. My mother had a big influence - she was an artist, a singer and a dancer. She wanted me to pursue a career in the field, too.
Because I travel so much, I often wake up in a different time zone or I'm recovering from having been in one. All the travelling can take its toll on my body, but I feel lucky to have the opportunity to see so much and experience playing in different cities around the world. When I'm at home, in Chicago, my morning routine really depends on the night before. I can wake as early as 6.30am or at around 11am. Sometimes I'll practise until 3am, in which case I'll sleep later.
When I wake up I practise the violin. It takes about 40 minutes and enables me to stretch my fingers. I can't play games like basketball, tennis or ping pong as I have to make sure my fingers are in good condition for playing. I do enjoy playing snooker, though.
After practice I have a shower. I'm not one of those people who eats breakfast often so I usually have
a glass of milk. I then launch into practising. I can get very hot and sweaty when I play at home, which means I often do so wearing pyjamas or shorts and a T-shirt.
It's not unusual for me to change what I'm wearing three or four times a day, purely because the practice sessions get sweaty.
It's important for me to get some time alone during the day. I usually make a point of taking a relaxing walk and I find I enjoy that time I have to myself. I often feel the need to be alone. I think this stems from Zen philosophy, which I have studied since I was about 15. It's nice to think about quietness. It's helped me to find myself.
On days when I'm out walking, sometimes people will recognise me and approach me. It often happens the day after one of my performances. It's always nice to get feedback so I don't really mind being approached, even if I feel like being alone.
By this time I'm pretty hungry, so I get some lunch. There are many places to eat around town so I often eat out. One of my favourite haunts is Chinatown, which is near where I live. I also love going for Italian food if the mood strikes me.
My wife doesn't really cook that much but I enjoy it. I find it helps me to relax. I love to cook Italian, Chinese and Japanese, and she likes that I enjoy cooking. But she is learning how to, so one of these days maybe she'll take over. It's half and half - sometimes we eat out, sometimes we eat at home. It depends what mood we're both in.
After lunch, if I'm gearing up for a show and feel I need to practise more, then I will. I like feeling prepared. But if I feel I've done enough by then, I'll settle down and read or do some writing.
One of my favourite pastimes is writing Chinese poetry. It's never intended for publication and I generally do it for personal satisfaction. I love to write poems in the old Chinese style. I may play music for a living but I also love writing it too. Again, it's mainly for myself.
On evenings when I have a performance, my day is a little different. I'll wake up a little later, practise and then have a nap. I don't eat lunch until later - about 3pm - because concerts are usually on at 7.30pm and I find it difficult to play after eating. That way I'm not hungry but I have the energy to play.
I feel nervous every time I perform - but it's an excited nervous feeling. Every performance is different and each one is a big event for me. I always want to play my best, considering that people have paid to come and see me.
Luckily, nothing has ever gone wrong. I've never forgotten a note or tripped up walking to the stage - though there was one time I had to play a show in the Netherlands and I was severely jetlagged. I was so tired I could barely lift a finger and yet I had this show to do.
I was really worried but knew I couldn't back out. So I went ahead and played, and it was one of my better performances in the end. I just knew that I couldn't let anyone down. I became really focused I've been lucky with all the travelling that I've done - I even got to play at the White House [in the US] once for some dignitaries, which was a great honour.
I play a Stradivarius, which is on loan to me [the Lady Tennant, crafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1699, fetched US$2 million at auction last year]. The weather affects the violin's sound, as does the humidity. I have to be very careful with it and I have to make sure the humidity where it's kept is at a certain level so as not to damage it.
I find that I work really well at night; I can concentrate better. You'd think that playing at night would cause problems but my neighbours have never complained, so I'm fortunate. My wife never complains either. We share the same interest in composers, such as Beethoven and Mozart, so there's always a lot of music in our home.
Midnight is considered early bedtime for me. I usually get to bed at about 2am. Sometimes I'll go for a few drinks with friends.
I sleep with the Stradivarius by my side. My wife doesn't mind too much - she understands its value.'
Yang Liu will perform with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong at City Hall on September 19. For tickets, call Urbtix (tel: 2734 9009).
For more on Stradivarius violins, see FYI, page 18.