How A World-Class Pianist Reached The “Mount Everest” Of Music

Katie Berrington, Vogue

Yuja Wang remembers when she first fell in love with classical music. It was as a very young child, watching her mother, a dancer, in rehearsals for Swan Lake. “I was blown away by its beauty,” the Beijing-born musician says of hearing Tchaikovsky’s compositions. A few years later, aged six, she began playing the piano.

Wang, now a world-renowned pianist, is revered by fellow musicians, critics and audiences alike for her astounding command of the instrument, her “superhuman” technical abilities, and her captivating, charismatic performances. While learning piano came naturally to her, she says, it was as a teenager – studying at the highly competitive Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia – that her understanding of the discipline truly evolved, and her appreciation of music moved beyond playing it.

“I learned all these monstrous, challenging pieces, all the things I didn’t dare to play because it requires more thought and intellect,” she recalls of her five years at the school. “It’s not about practicing any more, it’s about learning the thought process of the composer. What is the composer’s intention, what are they trying to express… [They] have spent hours and hours writing those pieces, so it’s only right that we spend years deciphering the meaning.”

Just as an athlete trains for an event, resolute persistence and determination are crucial for tackling the physical and psychological demands that go into preparing and performing the most difficult of compositions. One piece in particular stands out to Wang in the accomplishments she has mastered to date.

“I think each stage has a different challenge,” she considers. “The Hammerklavier that I learned when I was 29, I think, is the most painful and the most soul-searching music. Beethoven wrote all his life stories in there. The soul of the composer is embedded in the music. It’s 50 minutes to keep people’s attention and to keep my own concentration. Every moment is technically and emotionally charged, but the hardest part he kept until the last 15 minutes. We call that the Mount Everest. I had to climb that last year.”

Her rigorous work was rewarded though and she believes that the challenge only makes succeeding even sweeter. “I think the harder something is for you to get, in the end there’s more satisfaction to get it,” she adds.

Wang may have reached what many consider to be the pinnacle of achievements for a classical musician, but she has no intention of stopping striving in her field.

“I think we are only ever as good as our next performance,” she says, with an attitude to her work that is inspiringly forward-looking and shows steadfast resolve to keep being the best that she can be.

“My new plan is to play and conduct – being a pianist, there are endless possibilities to explore and you never know where it leads you. We have to get inspired, get motivated and just be alive. There are ideas and inspirations out there for us to catch them.”

World-renowned pianist Yuja Wang on being a world-class musician