Life at the keyboard
By Xu Xiaomin
When the well-known pianist Kong Xiangdong first made it big in
the city in the early 1990s, he was called the "piano prince."
His smart looks and passionate music won the hearts of many women
Now the "prince" has revealed his new look - with hair
"It is very environmentally friendly," Kong said, smiling.
"I never need to use shampoo or a hair dryer!"
The real reason for the change is that Kong started to lose his
From an ordinary piano student to an internationally renowned musician,
the 38-year-old Shanghainese pianist is now president of a piano
school that has accepted more than 20,000 students during the past
"I always told parents who were eager for their children to
learn piano that it was a mistake to push their children to learn
the instrument as a career unless the child felt he couldn't live
without it," Kong said.
He estimates that Shanghai has hundreds of thousands of children
studying the piano seriously.
Perhaps strangely for the president of a piano school, he adds:
"Learning the piano is so hard -- it means a child almost has
A hard upbringing
When he talks about his early piano training, Kong speaks of "bitterness"
The piano in his home was confiscated during the Cultural Revolution
(1966-1976), so Kong's mother - Lin Youling, who had a great interest
in the instrument - provided him with a keyboard painted on paper.
It was on this soundless "instrument" that he began his
piano career, at the age of 5.
His mother put the "keyboard" in the kitchen and asked
Kong to practise on it every day. Kong had to vocalize the notes.
"My interest in music ebbed quickly because the silent `keyboard'
made practice very boring," he said.
"A pianist has no childhood at all. I didn't understand the
games other children played."
When he was 7, Kong's mother borrowed enough money to buy a second-hand
piano for him. At a time when even urban salaries were counted in
just dozens of yuan a month, the 800 yuan (US$100) she spent on
the instrument was a fortune. It was not a good quality piano and
the keys were yellow and old, "like an old woman's teeth."
Kong used this "old granny" piano for 10 years. It stimulated
his real passion for learning music because he was fascinated by
the beautiful sound of a real piano after years at the paper keyboard.
He has kept the old piano to remind him of those days.
Kong said he practised piano at least eight hours every day - sometimes
more than 12 hours in his primary and middle schools under the Shanghai
Conservatory of Music.
But practising piano is an arduous chore, even for those who love
"Just repeat and repeat. For a 10-minute performance on the
stage, a pianist needs to practise a piece hundreds, maybe thousands
To give him time, Kong's mother even brought the Spring Festival
eve dinner to him at school, saving him the two-hour journey between
home and school.
"I still remember how my mother, my brother and I sat around
a small stove beside the piano in the classroom to enjoy the dinner,"
Many of Kong's classmates abandoned their musical careers because
they couldn't endure the endless hours of practice, or the loneliness.
"Being a pianist is lonely. It's a career on a small income,
with a small market, we practise, perform and travel alone. When
I sit on the stage by myself I know that if I make any mistake,
there is no one to rescue me."
Practice is the only path to success. Knowing that, Kong was a hard-working
student at school, where he wore out several keyboards on musical
Persistence is essential for a pianist, said Kong, from first-hand
experience. He stuck with his career and achievement soon followed.
In 1985, Kong - then aged 17 - won top prize in the national piano
competition organized by the State Culture Ministry.
He won third place in the 1986 Moscow International Piano Competition
and fourth place in the Spain's Santander piano competition in 1987.
He was the youngest winner in both of the two overseas competitions.
"But I am not a natural performer. I still remember how nervous
I was when I attended the competition in Moscow. It was the first
time I had participated in an international competition."
Kong said he didn't sleep well for several nights before and was
too nervous to step onto the stage for the final round. "I
almost ran away. But my teacher, Fan Dalei, kicked me in the back
and pushed me onto the stage. He did the right thing."
When Kong sat in front of the piano, his nervousness disappeared
quickly. "The feeling that comes from performing is fantastic.
Sitting in the light on the stage, I am the focus and I concentrate
on my music, in my own kingdom. The feeling is great."
After nearly 1,000 public performances, Kong said he still feels
excited on the stage. But the feeling is a little different now.
In his youth, Kong said, when he played the piano he just sank into
his music and never concerned himself with the effect he was having.
"But now I know how to be a mature artist. One should be a
listener as well as a performer, enjoying the performance and attending
to any shortcomings. It takes time to become mature."
Birth of a unique pianist
In 1988, Kong went to study in the United States, first at Brigham
Young University and then at the Curtis Institute of Music. "My
teacher Fan told me I should study real music, not simply learn
the skill of playing."
But what Kong first felt abroad was great shock.
At that time, when China was still only partially open to the outside,
Kong said he felt that he was in a totally strange world.
He brought only US$700 to the United States and on the way he lent
some of this money to a friend. At that time, even when buying something
as simple as toothpaste, Kong would carefully compare the prices
of different brands.
"Most Chinese students lived on scholarships. Our purchasing
power couldn't compare with those of students from Japan or South
Korea. But I was very lucky because I could play the piano. At least
I was able to earn money through performing, while many others had
to wash plates in restaurants. That would have ruined my hands."
Ten years in the United States brought Kong fame as a pianist.
In 1988, he won first prize in the International Gina Bachauer Piano
Competition in the United States and in 1992, he won first prize
and four other special prizes in the fifth International Sydney
The media described him as a unique artist. A German newspaper wrote:
"Luxurious and deliberate... He always maintains his unique
style... Though Kong is young, he has formed a strong artistic characteristic."
Kong has now visited more than 30 countries and territories in North
America, Europe, South Africa and Asia, and has co-operated with
many acclaimed symphony orchestras and other musical ensembles.
However, his marriage rang a warning bell. Kong married a violinist
when he was 26 years old. At first, the two musicians - with a lovely
daughter - enjoyed the sweet life.
"But it seemed marriage was the beginning of endless troubles,
maybe because we were too young at that time and no one wanted to
back down or compromise," Kong said.
At that time, Kong's career rose quickly, with more than 60 performances
around the world every year. The couple had almost no time together.
"When I got home it was usually midnight and my wife was already
asleep," he said. "Now I know why Americans say marriage
needs work every day."
Kong's first marriage fell apart, but he hoped for a second chance
at marriage. "People always need a home."
Piano's different faces
Without a marriage partner, Kong took his piano as his spiritual
home. "Nothing could be more meaningful and happier than to
affect other people's lives through music," he said.
Returning to China, Kong held many concerts, all of them well-recieved.
"But mostly they applauded at the wrong time," he said.
"I think 90 per cent of the audience came to see the famous
pianist rather than to enjoy the music itself. Chinese audience
need to improve their musical appreciation."
To remove the block between ordinary people and the piano, Kong
tries hard to refresh classical music with different elements.
Starting this year, he plans to hold a New Year concert around the
country every year.
"This year's will be a classical collection, next year will
be a cross-culture one - including jazz, pop and new age music.
I want it to be different," he said.
"I hope everybody will learn that the piano music is not just
elegant. Just like human emotion, the piano has different faces
- happy, sad or energetic."