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Life at the Keyboard

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 fans.


Now the "prince" has revealed his new look - with hair shaved off.


"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 hair.


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 nine years.


"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 no childhood."


A hard upbringing


When he talks about his early piano training, Kong speaks of "bitterness" and "hardship."


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 to play.


"Just repeat and repeat. For a 10-minute performance on the stage, a pianist needs to practise a piece hundreds, maybe thousands of times."


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," Kong said.


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 exercises.


First success


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 Piano Competition.


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 cooperated 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-received.


"But mostly they applauded at the wrong time," he said. "I think 90 percent of the audience came to see the famous pianist rather than to enjoy the music itself. Chinese audiences 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."


(Shanghai Star February 10, 2006)

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