Lang Lang walked into the room, dressed in a snappy red t-shirt with a black front pocket and black border trim, and a black jacket, high-fiving the wide-eyed students who had been waiting for him. His entrance was rock star-like—not the way I think of a classical pianist. “Who wants to play?” he asked the assembled group, all of whom were sitting at pianos that had been purchased through a generous donation from the Lang Lang Foundation. Just moments before, all of the students from Boston Arts Academy and the Orchard Gardens Pilot School had been practicing scales and songs. Now they froze. Was it really possible that Lang Lang was asking them to come up and play? But, one by one, they did. Lang Lang was an exceptionally gracious audience member and cheerleader. He had encouraging words for every student and added flourishes to their pieces.
When Nicole, from Boston Arts Academy, sat at the piano she seemed completely immobilized. No amount of coaching from her teacher, Ms. Seungok Lee from BAA, could loosen her fingers. She just sat there in the presence of greatness and couldn’t play. She stared straight ahead, her back stiff and her hands frozen. Her eyes darted to her teacher. Ms. Lee’s eyes and head nodded and urged her to play, but Nicole couldn’t. “You can play,” Lang said gently. “We know you can.” Somehow his gentle words and the rapt attention of all the young Orchard Gardens musicians loosened her fear, and suddenly her fingers were tearing up the keyboard. She played Fritz Kreisler’s “Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow)”, transcribed for piano by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Everyone cheered. Nicole has only played for two years but her mastery of this piece was stunning. Lang Lang urged her to keep playing. “You have great talent. Don’t stop now!” Nicole went back to her seat and sat a little taller and prouder. Ms. Lee did, too.
Her BAA classmate, Emily, was urged forward and explained that she composes music and sings. She played a melodic tune and hummed along, and, as she returned to her seat, Lang began to play the exact tune. There was quite for a moment. “How did he do that?” all the young students asked one another. Emily grinned broadly. “He just played my song perfectly!” Suddenly, everyone wanted to play for him and sing. Shanti, a 7th grader from Orchard Gardens, started to play a piece, and one of the smallest students in the room, a little girl dressed in yellow with pigtails, pitched forward so far on her piano bench that I thought she’d fall off. Lang Lang’s eye caught hers and he seemed to know she wanted to join Shanti at the piano. “Come on,” he urged. As Lang Lang pulled her forward, he learned that that it was her brother playing. She stood next to the piano and then begin to sing along while her brother played. I looked at Megan, the Orchard Gardens principal, and she was glowing. How often does a principal feel this kind of pride for her students? A principal’s day is filled with tough and often painful decisions. Days are filled with conflict and little time for reflection. But at 5:30pm on a Friday evening, Megan’s day was filled with pure joy. I felt fortunate to be there to witness this special moment.
I am proud of the seminal role that BAA played to bring Lang Lang to Orchard Gardens. Lang Lang’s Keys of Inspiration Foundation gave BAA an initial grant in 2013 , and the high school quickly shared those resources with OGPS. Now, OGPS has its own piano lab and music teacher. I look forward to many more opportunities to see these students take center stage as they become more mature musicians!
The Center for Artistry and Scholarship helps promote these moments. Our work involves helping educators think differently about schools and schooling through the arts. What does it mean to have young people gather across grade levels and schools to play music together? How often do young people, particularly those growing up in neighborhoods marred by violence and poverty, experience the joy and beauty of classical music training? Many parents were gathered in the room, also glowing with pride as their youngsters played for Lang Lang. OGPS, like so many urban schools, attracts students who may be recent immigrants to the U.S., but at today’s event, language and racial differences were blurred, and music was the common thread that held everyone. That is what the arts can do: bring everyone together for a common purpose. And today that purpose was to make beautiful music. The arts continue to show us ways to become our best selves.