Lang Lang and the Five Requirements for Early Greatness

Everyone sees the diamond sparkle; only a few see the diamond being cut.

buy cheap cialis online>Millions of Chinese parents saw Lang Lang front and center at the Opening Ceremonies. The Pareto Principle dictates at least twenty percent of them decided there and then to go into the diamond business. None of them will want to entertain the possibility that perhaps their one allowable diamond-in-the-rough is just an ordinary, serviceable lump of coal. They’ll be sure it’s just a matter of applying enough pressure.

Anyone who’s taught English in China has seen the flat eyes of children who’ve given up on themselves for not being what their parents want. Experienced teachers learn to recognize parents in the diamond business, the desperation behind their flattering smiles, and avoid them. Such parents aren’t looking for an instructor, but a convert to their cause.

All the English academies and weekend children’s art centers in China should have copies of Lang Lang’s bio, Journey of a Thousand Miles, available for the parents milling around during their kids’ grinding sessions. Hopefully they’ll realize that the five requirements for turning out a prodigy are not for them, and certainly not for young lives they claim to love.

Requirement One: Inherited Talent

An obvious requirement, but you wouldn’t know it from the presumptions of many a Chinese diamond polisher. Regardless of their own undistinguished early years, pushy parents assume any creature that has sprung from their loins should be able to speak English like George Plimpton and play piano like Lang Lang. Why can’t they? “My child is lazy! You must push him!” goes the rallying cry.

You can push a horse to piano but you can’t make it play Rachmaninov. Lang Lang’s family tree is laden with artists and intellectuals, shaken to earth by the well-known tremors of China’s twentieth century. His mother Xiulan was a dancer before she became a telephone operator, and his father mastered the erhu before succumbing to a career as a cop. Nothing comes from nothing, but that doesn’t stop people from believing that William Shakespeare was a semi-literate corn merchant, rather than the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Requirement Two: Motivation

Another gimme, also overlooked. Pity the parent searching for the eye of the tiger in a child who arrives to class with new-Audi smell on him, and is guaranteed a tray-full of McDonald’s after the lesson. There’s no carrot sweet enough to dangle in front of an over-privileged ass. It’s not wrong to dote on a child, but it is wrong to expect burning desire in a child who wants for nothing.

Lang Lang wasn’t too busy practicing scales to yearn for the good life. He once remarked to an interviewer, as the two passed a block of run-down Beijing apartments, “Where I grew up, the buildings were a lot worse than these. We paid fifteen dollars a month rent. You could smell the s**t, animal or human, before you even entered the building and then, the minute you walked in, wham! Compared to that, this is luxury, this is Fifth Avenue. We had no air conditioning, no heat.”

When he and his father came to Beijing for a shot at the big time, their new digs were no improvement on the Shenyang barracks he was used to. Their twelve-meter square cell in the historically run-down Fengtai district had only room for bunk beds, a galley kitchen, and a piano. Mice nibbled at the sheet music. During winter, Lang Lang’s father would try to warm the bed while his son did his late-night practice. They slept in all their clothes anyway. Dad would also wake up pre-dawn to lock himself in the community crapper so Lang Lang wouldn’t have to wait to wash up before practice. Pretty standard chi koo* for an unconnected Chinese family, but then young Chinese over-achievers are pretty standard, too.

Requirement Three: A Manic Parent

Flowers grow in sunshine, but diamonds take a mountain’s worth of constant pressure, if diamonds they are. Coal is ground into dust. And that pressure exerts both ways. Lang Guoren was seized with Joan of Arc-conviction that little Lang Lang was destined for greatness. He staked half a year’s wages on a piano for the two-year-old, and set him to work. Even before Lang Lang’s first competition at the age of five, Lang senior would berate his son’s tutor, “Lang Lang must be the number one pianist in all of China!”

Why? Because he must, that’s why. In China, yearning for glory is unseemly, unless it’s disguised as your child’s. Anything that gives the family face is acceptable, no matter the price. Not that China is the only country plagued with domineering stage-parents. And Lang Guoren walked the walk, putting his life on hold and risking all to manifest his son’s triumph. Inspiring stuff, but there’s an ugly side.

Requirement Four: Commitment unto Crisis

Although designed to perform one task constantly, machines eventually break down. Single-purposed organisms conk out even sooner – witness the honey bee. Born to experience, humans set to one and only one task will feel and show the strain, no matter how focused.

At least Lang Lang’s focus was playing piano; his father’s was making sure Lang Lang always played, and played well. The obsession backfired when a pre-teen Lang Lang arrived home two hours late – from an extended choral rehearsal.

“You’ve missed nearly two hours of practicing, and you can never get them back,” Lang Guoren shouted. “It’s too late for everything! Everything is ruined!”

Lang tried in vain to explain himself.

“You’re a liar and you’re lazy! You are horrible. And you have no reason to live. No reason at all.”

“What are you talking about?”


“You can’t go back to Shenyang in shame! Everyone will know you were not admitted to the conservatory! Everyone will know this teacher has fired you. Dying is the only way out.”

Lang’s tears didn’t dissuade his father.

“Take these pills!” Lang Guroen said, shoving a bottle into his hands. “Swallow all thirty pills right now! Everything will be over and you will be dead!” Out on the apartment’s balcony, the father continued to scream about jumping off.

“If you won’t jump, then swallow these pills! Swallow every last one,” the father said.

Finally, Lang began punching the wall – so hard that his hands started to bleed. Shocked at the sight, Lang Guoren finally backed down. He apologized, kissing the boy’s hands, and saying that he didn’t want Lang Lang to die. “I just want you to practice.”

Usually, one sees such drama only on soap operas. But a parent’s love can be as irrationally obsessive as a paramour’s.

Requirement Five: A New Paradigm

Even with the talent, determination, overbearing dad, and obsessive devotion, Lang Lang may well have never been world-class. He could easily have burned out before fame found him, or sparkled a few bright seasons and blinked out like Bobby Fischer. Luckily, he was entrusted to a world-class instructor, who was able to reforge Lang Lang’s gnawing ambition as humble devotion.

“In the first lesson,” Lang Lang recounts, “I said, ‘I want to be like Tiger Woods. I want to win all the big competitions.'” Graffman laughed, and asked him if he wanted a long career or short-term fame.

“Of course I said ‘long career’. He said, ‘Then you need to study and work hard on your piano playing. Don’t think about others, and one day, somebody will not be able to play in a concert. Then, if you succeed as a replacement, you will have a career.”

It happened just as Graffman predicted, when Lang Lang filled in for Andre Watts, delivering a brilliant Tchaikovsky piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At only seventeen, Lang Lang garnered world-wide acclaim, but only after putting the music before his glory.

*eating bitterness

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4 Responses to Lang Lang and the Five Requirements for Early Greatness

  1. This is a bad part of the parents. They should not expect so much from their children and should not force them to fulfill their expectations. This increases the chances of deterioration of the child. Parents should allow their children to do things they are capable of.

  2. At the age of five, Lang won the Shenyang Piano Competition and performed his first public recital.

  3. Buy Zenerx says:

    Wow, that is an overbearing father.

  4. Ernie says:

    Prince's was worse.

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