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Two sides of the Lang Lang story in and OUT of the heart-wrenching DO OR DIE Documentary

First, here’s the documentary that drew my admiration for a Chinese pianist who suffered childhood adversity and abuse, yet triumphed, carving out a career most would never dream of.

We learn that Lang Lang’s father fostered an “almost lunatic competitive environment,” according to the narrator. At the age of 2, the toddler was already regimented to practice with structured breaks and returns to the instrument in a point reward system. We watch years of the pianist’s life unfold in the grips of a premeditated paternal agenda–a psychological pounding of BEING FIRST drummed into the child from day one.

At times events skewed by the parent even encompass life and death turns.

The Beijing chapter

A relocation to cosmopolitan Beijing from the native sleeper town of Shenyang, brings a mice-infested flat in the slums, and an audition with a private teacher who denounces the prodigy as a loser. She screams at the child (age 9) with ear-piercing invalidation. “You should go back to your second class city because you’ll never make it as a pianist.” She denounces him as a “potato head” and abysmal “failure.”

Against this sociopathic backdrop that includes a physically absent mother, we’re wooed to follow Lang Lang through a maze of personal challenges that test his will to survive.

Thankfully, some tension-relieving moments provide glimpses of Lang Lang’s early cartoon-watching — Tom and Jerry inspired his passion for the piano, especially in the “Cat Concerto” feature, a heart-warming insert.


After watching the entire documentary three times, I took profuse notes and snatched quotes from Daniel Barenboim, pianist/conductor, Gary Graffman (Lang Lang’s teacher at Curtis) and music director, Christoph Eschenbach. Collectively, they resonated with admiration for the pianist’s innate musicality, spontaneity, and astounding technique:

Barenboim: “He has extraordinary facility, and very unusual sensitivity to harmonic and mood changes.”

Graffman: “I knew immediately that he was a major talent, (at the age of 14) and was happy to have worked with him for five years.”

Graffman’s study with Vladimir Horowitz filtered into lessons with Lang Lang, as he focused on the singing tone and taught the youngster how the vocalist’s breath was central to expressive music-making. (one can easily hear Lang Lang’s well-synchronized breathing into fluid phrases)

Eschenbach remembered hearing Lang Lang in a gathering arranged by Graffman.

“From the first note, I was fascinated… I felt immensely moved that a 17-year old could have such deep insight into the center of the music and what the music wanted to say.” (Rada Bukhman, pianist, teacher, and author, Discovering Color Behind the Keys: The Essence of the Russian School of Piano Playing, heard Lang Lang perform at this very life juncture. “I was very impressed, he was absolutely natural…the music flowed from his heart)

Playing for Eschenbach was a pivotal “breakthrough” for the young musician. Five days later (in 1999) the conductor booked him for an appearance at the Millennium Scala of the Ravinia Festival, playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concert in Bb minor. Other major symphonies immediately courted the young pianist, propelling his career into high

Lang Lang’s Carnegie Hall debut at age 21, in 2003, was another peak musical accomplishment. His concert was well-reviewed, and midway through his performance the pianist honored his father in this heart-warming duet.


Yet with all the glitter and glamour enveloping the pianist, music commentators have injected an over-inflated EGO into their criticism of his playing. They’ve insisted that Lang Lang is far too emotive, and over-“expressive,” adding their displeasure with his extra-musical face-making.

Other detractors find fault with the “commercialization” of a career that started out on the right foot but has seemingly gone awry.

One particular email I received nearly a year ago, gave credence to the controversy surrounding a looming musical figure who has inspired 40 million kids to take up the piano in China. For that alone, Lang Lang deserves piano ambassador status.

Yet here in the US, piano sales are declining with a well-reputed company like Steinway and Sons having sold out to private Wall Street interests.

In China, piano manufacture is skyrocketing.

Amidst a whir of PR surrounding a pianist who has ignited interest in the piano among the Chinese youth; who has played in the Olympic spotlight with flashing, multicolored beams, and who’s been the star attraction at the Queens Jubilee concert, any criticism of the pianist and his career choices can be weighed and measured accordingly.

Seymour Bernstein’s comments about the pianist form a category that epitomize the essence of anti-Lang Lang sentiment.

A pianist, teacher, composer, NYU faculty member, and celebrated author of WITH YOUR OWN TWO HANDS, Seymour forwarded a copy of his letter to Marilyn C. Nonken, NYU administrator, after she had announced ticket availability for “A Conversation with Lang Lang,” taking place at the 92nd Street Y. (2012)

Nonken’s note to NYU students and faculty bearing an attached flyer, read as follows:

“Every so often we put on an event that goes down in history… a conversation on stage where audiences get a rare glimpse into the mind of a person who is currently shaping our world. Our October 14th event falls into this category because we are bringing Lang Lang on our stage to offer music lovers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn about him as a person… how he thinks, how he works, and what moves him.”


Bernstein’s personal response was immediate before he drafted a substantial email to NYU principles.

“To be blunt about it, this outraged me!”

He subsequently forwarded what he’d sent to Dr. Nonken, and Robert Howe, Ph.D., Chair of NYU’s Dept of Music/Performing Arts Professions:

“Marilyn, I see that this notice is signed “Holly,” and also has Robert Howe’s name attached to it. Do they, and the SONY Corp. actually think that Lang Lang is “shaping the world?” The bazaar photo of him with the banner “92Y TALKS” across it, bespeaks the antithesis of true art. I spend a lot of time with my serious students and colleagues discussing the pros and cons of Lang Lang’s playing and his subsequent success…

“He is, of course, a formidable pianist. And I have heard him play gorgeously at the early stage of his career, his absurd physical movements on stage, notwithstanding. But in my opinion, he has fallen from grace, so to speak, and caters now to audiences with vulgar tastes, as do certain rock stars. As such, I feel that the course he has chosen in his career is to be avoided, and not emulated.

“What in fact can our students learn from such a virtuoso who places glitter, speed, and extroversion above the essence of what we have come to believe is musical art?

“On the other hand, artists like Daniel Barenboim, Richard Goode, and Murray Perahia, just to mention three world-renowned artists, actually do “shape the world.” Bring them onto the stage, and we will learn something vital from them, something to be emulated.

“The other thing is that Lang Lang is one of the richest musicians alive. If he wanted to contribute something to higher education, he should donate this appearance to the faculty and students at NYU. I find it outrageous that one has to buy tickets to such an event.

“Finally, it would be unfair to blame his management, his personal representatives, and the SONY Corporation for the vulgar hype they have circulated about Lang Lang. After all, they make fortunes of money on him. The blame rests squarely with Lang Lang, who has allowed them to advertise him as though he were a freak in a side show.”

One of Seymour’s students who encountered Lang Lang at a recording session, voiced a similar opinion:

“Bravo to you for your response, Seymour. I’m sure you recall that I spent nine hours turning pages for Lang Lang at a recording session at Sony. I can personally
say that your remarks about him are spot-on. I was entirely unimpressed by him both as a pianist and a human being. His arrogance and inconsiderateness aside, I was entirely appalled by his lack of musical taste and his total lack of seriousness as a musician….

“The idea of an institution of higher education endorsing such a musician is, as you said, an outrage…

“I sincerely hope that the blurb from the flyer, claiming that he has “conquered the classical music world,” turns out not to be prophetic. While there is nothing inherently wrong with commercial success as a musician, Lang Lang does indeed represent the exploitation of virtuosity and vulgar musical taste. The danger is simply that, thanks to media “hype,” many people with little exposure to classical music hear Lang Lang and assume he is the apotheosis of musicianship. If he succeeds as being recognized as the preeminent pianist of his generation, than he will indeed have changed the world… for the worse.”


The portrait of this high profile pianist, therefore, can be altered in one form or another depending on the gaze of commentators.

But having offered readers more than one side of the Lang Lang story, I’m sure they’ll come to their own conclusion about his artistry and place in music history.

Surely the heart-wrenching documentary, Do or Die is a must see in the company of more than one handkerchief.


Comments on Lang Lang, his artistry, personality, and influence at

alica delarrocha, Artur Rubinstein, Daniel Barenboim, pianists with big hands, pianists with little hands, Shirley Smith Kirsten, teaching piano, The art of phrasing at the piano, the art of piano pedaling, the art of piano playing, word press, word, wordpress,, you tube

Piano Technique: The big hand/little hand controversy (Videos)

I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked the same question by either parents, or people I meet on Amtrak. It’s about “piano fingers,” “hand size,” and the best physiological fit for the keyboard. Next in line are queries about tone deafness and “perfect pitch.”

The stereotypes are: A great pianist has God-given perfect pitch and long-tapered fingers. End of story.

Now if you log onto You Tube and sample lots of remarkable piano playing, you’ll quickly discover that short and stubby fingers can work musical magic.

Example, the late Alicia de Larrocha defied all physical stereotypes: She was pint-sized and with little fingers. (the pairing was perfect)

Given her bio-genetics and 4’9″ inch height, you can watch her rip through a fiery composition!

De Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance”

Try this out for size. Alicia playing Liszt’s “La Campanella”–

Talk about finger stretches that KILL!

I wish we could SEE her in this one. But listening without the distraction of vision is even better. Imagine this woman dancing around the keys.

It’s mind-boggling!

I’ve also discovered that Artur Rubinstein had rather small hands, and Daniel Barenboim, even smaller.

A famous pianist of yesteryear, Arthur Loesser, was said to have diminutive hands and fingers but played with finesse and fluidity.

(To be a devil’s advocate, I’ll admit that I’ve had students with such thick, long fingers, that if sandwiched between two black notes, their one finger couldn’t avoid depressing more than one key. And there was no easy way around it.)

After all is said and done, however, one must admit that some passages in the piano literature are more easily navigated with big hands and long fingers.

So why should I bring this up? Well, because my current obsession is Variation 3 of Mozart’s Sonata in A Major, K. 331 with finger-jamming parallel octaves in legato. (smooth and connected)

To cut a long story short, after I carved out what seemed to be a legato-feasible fingering, I found that my work-horse wrist had to elevate beyond comfort.

One solution was to lower the wrist and change my fingering. And that I did.

So even with my smaller hands, I smoothed out a gnawing passage, avoiding further anguish.

To satisfy your curiosity, watch this video, and think of what Professor Henry Higgins said to “My Fair Lady” as he rehearsed the Cockney out of her:

“I think you’ve got it!”

Play through Variation 3:


A pitch for a reduced-size piano!

When Big hands/fingers play unwanted notes

Aimi Kobayashi, Aristo Sham, CAPRICE ESPAGNOL MORITZ MOSZKOWSKI, Daniel Barenboim, Seymour Bernstein, word press,, you tube, you tube video

Piano Performance retrospectives: The seeds of greatness were sown early in life

It was fascinating to discover videos of pianists in their teens that hearken back to their earlier years of study. In all, a hallmark feel for the phrase and nuance highlights their performances in the past and present. In addition their heartfelt playing rises above the notes and communicates a musical passion that is unabashedly shared.

In a second set of videos, older, more established pianists have uploaded flashback offerings that are just as impressive.

Aimi Kobayashi

A 16-year old who has become a household name in European and American musical circles, Aimi’s spring 2010 debut in Carnegie Hall brought home her enormous talent.

In this performance the artist is 14.

Chopin Etude Op. 10 no. 4

Here’s a flashback performance when she was 4:

At a tender age, Aimi played with a rich palette of dynamics and beautiful phrasing:

George Li:

Li makes his Vancouver Playhouse debut at 16:

Flashback to age 12 performing Flight of the Bumblebee (Rachmaninoff arrangement/Rimsky-Korsakov)

Footage can’t be embedded:

Aristo Sham:

Making an appearance at the Miami International Piano Festival in 2009, Aristo was 13 at the time. (footage cannot be embedded)

Three Ginastera Dances

Flashback to Aristo Sham at 8:

Lang Lang performs Liszt’s Liebestraume at his Carnegie Hall debut:

A child of 11, Lang Lang appears in a home video playing Chopin’s “Black Key” Etude

Seymour Bernstein

Here’s the heavenly rendered Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Going back in time to age 15 on vinyl record, Bernstein interprets Chopin’s works as a seasoned pianist.

Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim in recording as a child of 12:, compare performances of Liszt Contemplation no. 3, Daniel Barenboim, George Li, Liszt, Liszt Consolation no. 3, Liszt Contemplation no. 3, Oberlin, Oberlin Conservatory, pianist, piano, Piano World,,, Romantic era music, Romantic music, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, tempo rubato, Vladimir Horowitz, word press,, you tube, you tube video

Comparison of five performances: Liszt Consolation No. 3 (Piano-videos)

After listening intently to Horowitz’s reading, I was curious to find others to compare.

No doubt a diversity of opinion surrounds any performance, but I had some ideas about why I liked one reading over another.

Daniel Barenboim: I always find that his playing is not only inspiring but thoughtful. He delivers an intimate performance here in beautiful simplicity not trying to overdo any Romantic effect by applying extreme rubato. He respects the natural flow of phrases and lets them almost play themselves. What I’ve noticed in general about his artistry, is that he is likely to take a slower tempo than most, and yet, he can rivet the listener to his every phrase, because he communicates the music on more than one level. I gain insights by each of his readings.

Lang Lang:

This pianist always impresses with his color palette, glowing phrasing and nuance, as well as energy abundance. In this reading, the flourishes in the upper range are played a tad too quickly compared to Horowitz and Barenboim. And more liberties are taken, in the rubato arena, perhaps a bit exaggerated at some moments–although in the main, I find Lang Lang to be so wonderfully connected to whatever music he plays, that fussing over this or that detail of interpretation may be superfluous.

George Li
at 16, renders an age-defying, riveting performance. It has all the desired elements of great playing. A nice, wide palette of dynamics and nuance; a sustained singing tone approach; rubato that is not overdone; a going with the flow, sinuous phrasing that is well-spun. Li holds listeners in his hands from beginning to end.

I applaud George for this reading! Bravo!! May more people visit this site and enjoy your artistry! And Congratulations on the Oberlin Conservatory scholarship. (My alma mater!)

A bit about George lifted from his website:

2010 was a Milestone Year for pianist George Li. In July, George performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Cleveland Orchestra and won first prize in the Cooper International Piano Competition 2010; the prize package includes a full, four-year scholarship to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and concerto performances in Beijing and Shanghai, China. In November, George won first prize in the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, awarding him debut recital opportunities in New York, Washington D.C., and Boston.

Born in August 1995, George Li (黎卓宇) is a 10th grade student at the Walnut Hill School and the New England Conservatory (NEC) Preparatory School, where he studies piano with Ms. Wha Kyung Byun (卞和暻). George’s previous piano teachers include Mrs. Dorothy Shi (杨镜钏) and Mr. Yin Chengzong (殷承宗).

Seymour Bernstein:

A heartfelt, Old World, nuanced interpretation, with especially poignant, affective transitions from minor to major. The final sonority has Bernstein’s emblematic, to-die-for delay, that leaves the listener spellbound. I personally like the slower, lingering performance which does not over indulge rubato.

Back to Vladimir Horowitz and what I said about his performance in my last blog posting.