How One Pianist Is Bringing Music Classes to Schools Across America

Vivienne Flesher

With his nonprofit organization Keys of Inspiration, pianist Lang Lang is giving children across the country an opportunity to explore music.

I left my hometown at the age of nine to study with a very important piano teacher in Beijing, but it only lasted a few months. The teacher fired me! She said, “You should go back home. Piano’s not your thing.” (That’s the problem with some teachers. If you don’t play like them, you’re no good. Everyone has their own interpretations. In classical music, you already have the score. But every time you play it, it’s a new beginning.)

Six years later, I came to America to study at the Curtis Institute of Music, but I was so young that they sent me to a different high school in Philadelphia. On the first day, I asked my classmates, “Do you learn music here?” They said, “No, we don’t have music class.” Then I asked the teacher why. She said, “We don’t have money for a piano. No budget to hire a music teacher.” That’s when I realized, One day I want to bring music to everyone. I became even more resolved after I went to Africa as a UNICEF ambassador in 2004. You see all these kids with malaria, HIV. Really sick, really depressed. But when they listen to music, their eyes sparkle. I thought, This is the real power. Not me practicing alone in a dark room.

My foundation started the Keys of Inspiration program five years ago. We reached out to some of the most disadvantaged schools in America: East Brooklyn, West Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, D.C., Boston. In the beginning, it was very difficult. These schools are very afraid of doing new stuff. We had to convince them: “This will make your students better. This will make your students more balanced.”

In order to do this, you need to have a budget and a method. You can’t just go into a school and say, “Hey, let’s have some fun!” That’s okay for a visit. You kind of cheer people up. But for Keys of Inspiration, you need teachers, equipment. You need the high-tech smart keyboard; every student gets one. At first, we saw students who didn’t care for school. But when we started offering the music class, their performance in other classes improved.

Keys of Inspiration is not an after-school program. It’s part of school. The kids get graded. But the great thing is, they’re motivated to practice after school. There’s one kid in Harlem who started off saying, “Whatever, whatever.” Now that little kid is like, “I want to know how to play Frozen on a keyboard!” It changed his life. The kids now also write their own songs.

Just last year, we launched Keys of Inspiration in China. Our first project was in the western part of China. They needed money to rebuild a school after the earthquake, so we bought them music equipment and hired a teacher.

Our method includes cartoon characters because Tom and Jerry was my first inspiration. I was three years old when I saw them playing “The Cat Concerto.” I think cartoon characters help kids learn. They’re much more casual than a scary professor with glasses. And they won’t fire you! langlangfoundation.org —As told to Laurence Lowe