It was such an unexpected surprise when I spotted this book on the shelves of the library@esplanad that my heart went a-fluttering for a few seconds before I pulled it out. Written in Chinese by Lang Guo-ren (known as Lang Pa) and published in 2012 (Lang Lang turned 30 on 14 June 2012), this book is a father’s account of the story behind the phenomenal success of international pianist Lang Lang.
This book tells of the special relationship between father and son and the unforgettable early days of struggle, unsurmountable courage and immense hardwork. Their experience shows that there is no short cut : success only follows after much hard work and nobody can realise their dreams through sheer luck.
Lang Lang comes from a musical family: his paternal grandfather loved music and played many instruments and was most proficient in accordion, flute, violin, organ and harmonica (which he played for the baby in his crib). Lang’s paternal grandmother loved music, especially singing. Their five children all played musical instruments and Lang Pa was partial to the erhu. His plans to turn professional was thwarted; and the biggest turning point in his life was the birth of Lang Lang. Both parents had agreed that the child (whether girl or boy) would learn the piano (because it’s a Western instrument and king of all musical instruments and is known internationally), so they bought one in 1981.
The name Lang means ‘very bright’ and he was nicknamed Liang Liang (also meaning ‘very bright’). He was always alert and loved colourful things and was sensitive to music. When he was 9 months old, he could finish a song pitch-perfect, and was the first child in the neighbourhood who could sing Shanghai Bund. He began learning the piano when he was about 2 (from Lang Pa). His motivation included chocolates, story books, comics and transformers.
Lang Lang loved the cartoon Tom & Jerry and would not allow any adult in the room when he watched it (sometimes with his friends) but would make a lot of noise shouting, yelling, clapping or stomping his feet. He surprised everyone one day by playing the theme on the piano. (He was only two-and-a half!) Lang Pa was even more determined that Lang Lang would be trained in the piano and they would aim for the world stage.
Much of the anecdotes have been recounted by Lang Lang in interviews and his book, Journey of a Thousand Miles (2008) but Lang Pa offers his own perspectives. Lang Pa also wrote about other matters, such as how to choose a teacher, how the parent works with the teacher and why it is best for the parent to learn together with the child as a partner. Lang Pa’s 10 Principles include cultivating the child’s concentration, nurturing the child’s memory, efficiency, competitiveness, vigorous training, communicating/working with the teacher and getting their support and encouragement, how the child must be passionate about learning, must learn to compete, run, chase, help and surpass, not letting the child be distracted by worries or influenced by negative vibes and working with the teacher.
From the time Lang Lang was 11, Lang Pa’s account was more detailed and elaborate than what Lang Lang had written in his book. For example, I was surprised to note that T’sung Ye (conductor/director of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra) played a part in introducing Lang Lang to Gary Graffman! I also did not know that Graffman spoke good Mandarin or that Lang Lang’s first CD was recorded under the IMG label (when he was only 15).
Perhaps only a father with Lang Pa’s mentality could fully appreciate the unease he felt when Lang Lang began to fall in love with American culture and started rebelling. The story of how Lang Lang became an overnight sensation is history, but I discovered Andre Watts also replaced Lang Lang once, many years later, when the latter fell ill. Lang Lang made no mention in his book that he asked his father to return to China in 2007 because he noticed Lang Pa was getting old and tired. When Lang Lang’s Music World (based in Shenzhen) was established, Lang Pa became the CEO and felt a sense of satisfaction.
The lessons Lang Lang learnt from Lang Pa include: being a good person, respecting the elders, be compassionate and easy-going and never forgetting where he came from no matter how successful he becomes. Lang Lang also picked up strong work ehtics from his father; an example is how he went ahead to perform a concert despite a fever of 39 degrees Celsius in 2009 and needed a crew member to help him off stage. On another occasion, Lang Lang cancelled all interviews when he thought visiting his granny was more important.
There are five places in the book that I was moved to the core : the incident where Lang Pa ordered Lang Lang to commit suicide (which is too painful to repeat), the time when Lang Lang’s mouth was full of ulcers because he missed his mum too much, the time when Lang Lang bought his mum a present (when he won a piano competition in Germany) and asked for a present in return (“a real, good hug”), the time when Lang Pa got a SMS from Lang Lang that simply said ‘Love you Pa’ and the surprise 30th birthday celebration for Lang Lang after his concert at O2 in Berlin.
The relationship between Lang Lang and Lang Pa is unique: they are not just father and son, but also friends, brothers and buddies. Reading this book, I gained a new insight into Lang Pa’s world. I admire his dedication and sacrifice for his son and I could empathise with him. There is little mention of Lang Lang’s mother, and I hope I’ll get to read a book penned by her one day, offering her insights too. Before that book, or Lang Lang’s next book comes to fruition, I’m going to re-read Lang Lang’s Journey of a Thousand Miles very soon.