In Lang Lang, talent met with hard work

Kelly Yang says Lang Lang's achievements are a reminder, in these times of plentiful options, of the reward of determined hard work

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 December, 2014, 1:20pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 December, 2014, 7:48pm

His hands glide across the pearly keys. His hair moves to the sound, like a tree swaying in the wind. His face is a highway of emotions - sorrow dancing with euphoria, pain melting into passion. Watching him is as moving as hearing him.

As I watched the piano superstar Lang Lang work his magic at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre last week, I thought of the long journey it took him to get to this stage. The six hours of daily practice starting at age three, the long separation from his mother in the middle of his childhood, his first teacher in Beijing who didn't believe in him and told him to quit, the fight with his father afterwards which almost drove him to suicide … How was he able to succeed, despite these heartbreaking challenges?

After the concert, I sat down backstage with Lang Lang and his mother Zhou Xiulan to find out. His mother was a glowing picture of maternal pride. Watching her tell the story of their success, as she calls it, I got the sense that Lang Lang's triumph was inevitable. He simply had to succeed. His parents pinned all their own dreams and hopes, crushed by the Cultural Revolution, onto their little boy.

Hearing her recall the hard times - Lang Lang practising for hours without air conditioning in the summer, in just his underwear, and in the winter without any heat - I couldn't help but wonder, what about the kids today who don't grow up like that? What about the kids who come from privilege and have a wealth of other options - do they have a chance to become the next Lang Lang?

Absolutely, says Lang Lang. He was quick to assure me that wealth isn't the issue, that it simply comes down to talent and hard work. I want to believe him but I also know from my own experience teaching students who come from privilege as well as students who do not, that privilege is its own unique challenge. It may not be as perilous as poverty, but it's not completely benign either.

At its best, privilege can create opportunities and facilitate success; at its worst, though, privilege can clash head-on with hard work, something essential for success, in not just piano but all fields. As parents and educators, it's up to us to not let it clash. That doesn't mean turning off the air conditioning in the summer, but it may mean taking away unnecessary luxuries and distractions, be they gadgets, television, or video games.

I asked Lang Lang what's the hardest thing about success. He said it was to keep succeeding. He told me about the need to stay clear-minded and focused once you succeed, and not bend to all the interests, ideas and suggestions that people are constantly throwing at you.

Towards the end of the interview, I mention a song he played at the concert,
Turkish March, a song I also happen to know how to play (his version, though, makes my version sound like it was played by a bear). As he registers the song in his head, he smiles and closes his eyes for a second, like he's greeting an old friend. And in that moment, I can tell he's truly happy.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.