The Lang Lang International Music Foundation – The Transformative Power of the Piano
“It has been eighteen years now, since I met Lang Lang, and from the first moment we have developed a special and close friendship,” says Lukas Barwinski-Brown, who had worked with Lang Lang on his first recording for Deutsche Grammophon as their head of operations in Austria.
The former chief at Universal Music Austria in Vienna has been an integral part of many music icons’ lives, but feels a special kinship with Chinese star pianist Lang Lang. The two are often present for each other’s career milestones; Lang Lang was there to celebrate when Barwinski was cast as the first ever Polish director of the Warsaw Opera in 2011, and it was then that the pianist approached Barwinski with his own passion project: his foundation focusing on the piano, its literature, and fundamental musical learning as an overarching educational outreach program. In short: the foundation’s mission was to bring music into every kid’s life.
The initiative began in 2008, and by 2011, programs had been established in 30 schools in China and ten in the United States, but it was in need of concise leadership. Once his appointment was confirmed by the foundation’s chairman, Sandy Weill, Barwinski left Vienna for New York, setting up a small office for a large mission.
Barwinski remembers the early beginnings: “There was a lot of enthusiasm, but It was not an easy start, everything took time. People were skeptical. The channels of getting into the Public-School System in the US can be very tricky. It’s a very different situation than in a more homogeneous school system, like in Austria or Germany. And yet we really wanted to get into the poor districts that were desperately lacking so many things and presenting a total void when it came to music education.”
While Lang Lang’s fame was long established internationally, building the educational outreach went beyond creating a brand and its visibility. It entailed building an institution to advance arts and culture, and ultimately enhance communities. In addition to coming up with a concept that conveyed the clarity of the product and service, its placement and promotion, the people, and the price, there are challenges that require connections and commitment. It was sheer tenacity that allowed the foundation to navigate the complex and erratic governmental sectors necessary to achieve their goals. The foundation’s staff possessed the leadership experience to deliver tangible results, delivering the impact Lang Lang’s vision demanded: with the beloved piano as a vehicle, it’s about serving communities, and improving children’s lives.
Lang Lang says, “Music makes life better. It heals, unites, and inspires. And it makes us better people. I am passionate about music and have dedicated my life to it. I’m motivated in a unique way by the work I do with my foundation to inspire the next generation of classical music lovers and performers—both those children who study piano and those who experience live performances for the first time… Music is powerful. I want every child to have access to music experiences that ignite something wonderful inside of them, just as music delivered something incredible for me. My hope with my foundation is to find a way to capture the potential that I see in music to positively transform lives and provide inspiration to kids around the world in a meaningful and sustainable way.”
In 2016, Lang Lang published his Piano Method, a five-volume series of animated keyboard lessons for beginners, aged 5-10. Trying to communicate how fun piano playing can be, Lang Lang, himself a big fan of cartoons, guides the kids as an animated cartoon character though varied beginners’ repertoire. Students work online with Lang Lang ‘s interpretation of the repertoire with an app, or downloadable videos. Certainly, this is a fresh way to unite today’s vast use of technology with the more traditional values of learning how to play the piano. The major aspect about this strategy is to find a way to keep kids motivated and to show them a transitional way from the keyboard mostly used on their computers and smart phones, to the musical one. In a recent interview for France Musique Lang Lang says: “New technologies can be a great medium, and you have to take full advantage of them! Nowadays, all the kids have a tablet or smartphone: asking them to practice the piano using these devices can make the work more fun and less tedious. Not to mention that digital media now gives us much more autonomy. Many steps can be mastered without the need for a personal ‘coach,’ which was not at all possible even twenty years ago.”
New technology certainly plays an important role when it comes to integrating a new curriculum, geared for instructing not with the traditional “one on one” pedagogical experience, but a whole classroom simultaneously. Currently 60 schools all over the US have implemented the foundations piano lab, a classroom equipped with inter-connected electric keyboards made by Roland, making it possible for a whole classroom to partake in weekly music lessons.
“My vision was to set up a solid curriculum and develop a method to implement it, to provide its long-term sustainability,” says Barwinski. The result is a curriculum established through a collaboration between the foundation and the Toronto Royal Conservatory of Music’s Dr. Janet Lopiniski’s curriculum, coined Keys of inspiration. “We talked to every principal we could get our hands on to build our music program into the school’s ongoing curriculum, complete with a classroom setting filled with instruments, and learning can function like in a language lab with headphones; the only thing the school has to commit to is to hiring a teacher, in agreement with its school district,” he explains. Biannual reports supply the necessary feedback and offer a comprehensive evaluation of what is possible. As much as possible, Lang Lang puts his mission into action. Often involved in new school openings, he turns them into press covered, red-ribbons events. He clearly loves the work he puts in, communicating with the kids, laughing with them, and advancing support for these underfunded schools; kids show enthusiasm for the program and get parents involved, which in the process, impacts the entire community.
Although already some very new talent has emerged through Keys of Inspiration, old school mentoring still applies for the more advanced stages of piano playing. Grooming the next generation of piano talent therefore inhabits another layer of Lang Lang’s educational outreach. The Young Scholar Program identifies unique talent through traditional channels. International collaboration, providing coaching and performance opportunities on a large scale, exists so far only for this program, which profits from Lang Lang’s strong personal engagement with its scholars.
One such scholar is Maxim Lando, who auditioned for the foundation at age 11. “They have done so much for me, it’s just incredible, “ he says enthusiastically. “They send me to all these incredible music platforms, all over the world.” Trips to Spain, Russia and Italy for courses, masterclasses and chamber music were regular stops for the young scholar, collaborating with other scholars and upping his game as a soloist. “At a festival in Romania, we performed with orchestra, and in Chicago, with the Youth Orchestra,” he says. “Then two years ago, when Lang Lang injured his hand, keeping him from his busy performance schedule, he called me out of the blue, suggesting I ‘be his left hand’ at his Carnegie Hall performance.” The incredible opportunity for the young pianist, performing alongside Lang Lang and Chic Corea at Carnegie Hall, was a “once in a lifetime experience,” as he describes. More importantly, though, it initiated a close relationship with Lang Lang and other star musicians, “with Chick, we still write to each other all the time.”
The very young generation of pianists, like Maxim, gets what Lang Lang is after. “Classical music is too isolated from mass appeal. Compared to a pop or rock concert, we are stuffy,” says Maxim. Going on the road with Lang Lang changed that impression, and Maxim is eager to continue this experience. “I feel I can make a difference in how I deliver the music. You can show in a hall like Madison Square Garden, that’s brimming with energy, without dumbing down classical music.” He has learned from the best how to appeal to a crowd. “I want to reach these crowds by guiding them to appreciate the nuances. Lang Lang has influenced people to be more open to this, perhaps more than anyone else, with great authority. At the end it is about giving from the heart,” and Maxim takes great pride in sharing that motivation with his successful mentor.
Like Lang Lang himself, who has always advocated for the importance of strong mentorship, Maxim has found that from an early age, studying with Hung Kuan Chen and his wife. He credits the pedagogue with letting him keep his own personality and maintaining a healthy relationship with his “real” environment. It did not hurt, of course, that Mom and Dad are musicians as well, and since he can remember, music has been part of his life. Maxim’s father, Vadim Lando is a prize-winning clarinetist and both parents are supportive of their son’s blossoming career, while keeping it real, as much as that’s possible. As a recent winner of the Young Concert Artist and the Gilmore Young Artist’s prize, and currently enrolled at the Juilliard School, Maxim’s schedule is getting filled up rapidly.
He is busy, but it does not take away his enthusiasm for every engagement he performs, or his favorite virtuosic repertoire. At the recent fundraiser for the Lang Lang foundation at Steinway Hall, Maxim did not flinch when introduced by Alec Baldwin; he is used to the flair of celebrity stardust. Despite his young years, Maxim is a musician of the generation that understands that the artform won’t die out, but that its performers have to adapt to the limelight of their varying stages, and they must be generous, engaging, and willing to educate their peers and audiences; and that starts with the very young generation.