Internationally renowned pianist Lang Lang is an advocate for the United Nations' Global Education First Initiative, which has just marked its first anniversary. He tells DW why he places such a high value on education.
DW: You are part of a global initiative, Education First. Is it exciting for you to be part of this initiative?
Lang Lang: It's absolutely great. As a UNICEF ambassador I started working with the United Nations almost 10 years ago. […] Today they even invited this incredible girl from Pakistan, Malala [Yousafzai], and she also made an incredible speech to inspire the youth in the world to care about child poverty, the horrible wars and also girls' rights, so it was very inspiring to hear that.
What is your personal message for this initiative?
I hope that music and art will go back into many of the public schools where they have been cut out for a while. I hope that, as a musician, we will communicate with other great musicians and synergize our passion for music to inspire the newer generation to open their hearts in music and art. Hopefully then music and art will give a wonderful boost to our general education as well.
Tell me more about your personal experience with education. In what regard did it change your life?
There are a few things in different areas. As a UNICEF ambassador I went to Africa and I saw really poor kids there who are suffering from malaria and AIDS and obviously that is a different issue than the problems in the western or Chinese public schools. So in that area the most important thing is to get a malaria shot and also to try to prevent getting AIDS and HIV.
And then from the many years of working with public schools I learned that actually the children are very passionate through music about life, but sometimes they just don't have a chance to study and I think an artist's visit to the school means a lot to those students and is actually changing a lot of their concepts in life. So now I have my own foundation. We have just started a collaboration with an art school in Boston in a very kind of rundown neighborhood, where we are now starting to help 200 kids to learn music and learn the keyboard.
At the same time I am also watching for the best young musicians from the next generation. We try to mentor them and try to help them have a bigger career and bigger view of music knowledge. We actually have two in Germany, Cynthia and Matthias, and they are doing incredibly well. They just had a summer camp studying in Chicago. They played with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra in this beautiful park in the heart of Chicago.
Then other kids from theUS and Asia went to Oxford this summer to study with one of the best piano teachers, Fanny Waterman. She is 93 years old and is the founder of the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition. She is kind of like a "piano mother" for a lot of wonderful students.
Take me back to when you were a little child growing up in China. What did it mean to you to go to school and enjoy education?
I actually had a pretty good school. Music has always been in the school system and I learned a lot of Beethoven symphonies there in a regular public elementary school. Then I went to the professional conservatory and made a lot of progress as a musician - what you call a serious musician. So I believe that a good public system will help tremendously to have the early education for this type of art.
In what regard does your personal education help you to be a good musician - or does it help you?
Yes I think so. It's all about how involved you are. There's a great relationship between the parents, the piano teacher and the kids. It's a golden triangle; it needs to work. If this doesn't work, it will be hard to improve because there are a lot of challenges in life and if you are not synergized from the very beginning as a team it will be very hard to achieve anything.
For you, is it important to have a general basic education to think through the music and perform it?
Absolutely, because you need to know what the kids at regular schools think about music. That is very important. You cannot always just talk to the professionals and the intellectual professors about music, you also need to talk to the everyday kid from school and ask what they think about music. Then you get a much bigger picture, rather than living in your little small world, that thinking that the world is a beautiful "nothing happens" place and it's the same thing in life, you need to study the whole world not just in your little field.
What did you learn when you met young children and talked about music?
What I see is that most of the young kids probably don't know a lot about classical music. Mostly they are really into the new music of today - pop music and hip hop. They know very little about Mozart, Beethoven or Bach. It's just like if somebody grew up and didn't see the great novels from the 18th century or 19th century. In the past there are a lot of great things we need to learn as part of our human art and history. So we need to respect that and I think when I explain that to the newer generation they accept and start listening and say, "Wow, that is very emotional as well."
The challenge is that they probably feel it is too far from their day to the composers' time, so that is always the challenge. But when you remove the time a little bit it becomes very natural to understand.
Coming back to this initiative, Education First, and your experience as a UNICEF ambassador, what would you like to see happen in the next few years?
Next year we will have a closer relationship with the United Nations and as you see today, Gordon Brown and Ban Ki-moon said very clearly that they would like to work with many foundations and private people to make more donations and more concerts to synergize the efforts. So I would like to be part of it and I would like to play some concerts and talk to the people in my foundation, the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, to try and raise funds for them.
Lang Lang, 31, is an internationally renowned pianist and an advocate for education through his work with the United Nations and the Lang Lang International Music Foundation. The UN's Global Education First Initiative, launched in September 2012, aims to put every child in school, improve the quality of learning and foster global citizenship. Lang Lang will receive the Echo Klassik German music prize in the category "Bestseller of the Year" for his Chopin Album on October 6, 2013.