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Miguel Witte - Book review, written 2009:
Lang Lang: Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story

Amazon Lang Lang, Journey of a thousand miles

The autobiography of Lang Lang, a world renowned clasical music piano performer starts in Shenyang, the capital of the Liaoning province in north eastern China. Both his mother and his father had a strong inclination towards music, dance, singing and theatre. Unfortunately his father didn´t manage to get a place at music school and his mother was forbidden from pursuing a career as a theatre dancer and singer due to the circumstances of the cultural revolution. Their frustrated careers meant that they passed their artistic ambitions on to their son Lang Lang, an only child, like many others due to the Chinese one child policy of the time. When he reached two years of age he was given a piano as a present and he was subsequently introduced to music and piano playing by his parents. Lang Lang enjoyed playing piano and showed a love of music in general.

The family lived in humble circumstances. The father, Lang Guoren, worked first in a factory and then managed to find a job as a musician in the army orchestra. Some time later he got a job as a police officer. His wife, Zhou Xiulan, worked as a telephone assistant.

When Lang Lang reached four years of age, his father, who realized that his abilities as piano instructor where only limited, manged to find a suitable piano teacher and urged his son to practice twice as hard. "Don´t make any mistakes when you perform in front of your teacher!", he told Lang Lang. From then on his father implemented a strong training scheme on him which included six hours of piano training a day. The father also requested the teacher to be demanding with his classes and to challenge his son with performing ever more complex pieces.

Being the top performer in any given area was greatly admired by his friends and family and Lang Gouroen believed that becoming number one in piano playing was not just wishful thinking, but a realistic goal which his son could achieve by working hard. He was convinced that his son had all the talent he needed. What would make the difference is the level of training and practice, he told him. Lang Lang realises that he never asked his parents to take the pressure off him. He accepted and even enjoyed it. When he was five, his father urged him to take part in a piano competition, which he won. At that moment Lang Lang decided to become a professional concert pianist.

When he was seven, his father decided they should both move to Beijing in order to prepare for the entrance exams at Beijings nationally renowned conservatory. Goren quit his job, rented a humble flat in a poor neighbourhood, and managed to get a professor of the Beijing conservatory to prepare his son for the entry exam on the basis of private tuition. Father and son paid their expenses with the help of Lang´s mother who remained in Shenyang where she kept working. Lang Lang´s father required his son to practice for some eight hours a day always insisting that he should become number one. For Lang Lang the separation from his mother was hard to bear. She could only visit him occassionally during the years they spent in Beijing. When the entrance exam took place, Lang Lang had to compete with some 3000 students from all over China and in the end he was the best.

He studied at Beijings Conservatorium until he was fourteen. When he caught the attention of Gary Graffmann, a leading piano performer and teacher, he entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Lang Lang and his father moved then to Philadelphia, where Lang Lang continued to study. When he was seventeen years old, he was invited to play Tschaikowsky´s Concerto Number One as a substitute for André Watts with the Chicago Symphony orchestra. During the occassion Lang Lang performed brilliantly and he was discovered by top directors like Zarin Mehta, Eschenbach and Isaac Stern. This was the starting point for an international music career.

There are several aspects in the book which are highly interesting.

First of all there are Lang Lang´s parents who require complete dedication to music and who support him in his way towards becoming a world class piano performer. The father is impressive with his determination, always insisting that his son should be training more hours, and telling him to play compositions again and again. They realised Lang Lang had great talent and they were determined to develop this talent to the maximum by countless hours of practice. The father just wanted him to be the number one. The most impressive part of the book is about the time when they decide to go to Beijing. The family was separated, Lang Lang didn´t see his mother for months at a time from the age of seven, the fathers only occupation was overseeing the musical education of his son, and the family survived on the small income the mother got from her job as a telephone assistant. To pass the entrance exam for the Beijing conservatory with some 3000 students competing was no mean feat, but, Lang Lang was first. Reading Lang Lang´s story was an example of how important and rewarding a strong work ethic is when developing a talent.

Of course there are two questions: was it worth the effort and what price has been paid by Lang Lang and his family. The first question is difficult to answer in that it is a very personal issue. I would suggest that it was worth the effort in that they did what they wanted to do. The parents had a plan for their son and Lang Lang had a talent for music that was nourished. They pursued a dream and they were lucky it became a reality. During the course of the book it also becomes very clear that the family did pay a high price, as the project they pursued required them to live apart for many years. Lang Lang doesn´t complain very much about the tough discipline required to perform the piano but often remarks how hard it was for him emotionally not to have his mother with him. At the end of the book he recognises that he is now extremely fortunate to enjoy performing the piano and giving concerts.

The book is an interesting read because it illustrates the making and the development of an outstanding achiever. It illustrates the period of 14 years that he had until he was recognised by the top conductors. This is in line with Howard Gardners belief that it takes some 10 years to develop into a top performer in a given field. Langs book is also interesting read in comparison with Geoff Colvin´s book "Talent is overrated" in that it states an example that outstanding performance is based on hard work and training rather then innate talent.

Another interesting aspect is the musical education, the different teachers and the teaching styles Lang Lang has experienced. Lang Lang´s first teacher was a woman, Zhu Ya-Fen, who was very patient and required patience as well. When Lang Lang first prepared for the Beijing conservatory entrance exam he had a very strict teacher and then later a softer one. When he started at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia Lang Lang expressed his wish to prepare for piano competitions however he was told by his tutor not to focus too much on competitions because it would distract from his musical education. He should play music for its own sake and just try to express most accurately what the composer had in mind. His tutor, Mr. Graffmann, told him that the Chinese learning system is mainly based on competing, scaling and ranking, but this can be a hindrance when developing a musical talent. Lang Lang recognises that this approach has suited him well and has helped him in becoming a top performer but he also acknowledges the competitive mentality that has been passed on to him by his father and the fact that he himself enjoys competing with others.

The book is not writen by Lang Lang himself but with the help of a ghost writer. This is not negative, the story appears authentic. I found it to be an insightful and thought provoking book which I enjoyed reading.

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