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Young musical talent spotlight: Yuanfan Yang

Yuanfan Yang was born 1997 in Edinburgh and began playing the piano aged 6 when he passed the ABRSM Grade 8 with distinction at the age of 8, after which he gained the DipABRSM diploma aged 10. He has won first prizes in a number of competitions in different countries.

The UK famous musician Milos Karadaglic described his piano performance as “more than human”. We  interviewed this young artist, who has matured beyond his peers with a deep understanding of music. Let’s explore his musical world together.

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1:You began to play the piano from the age of six, are you interested in it? During that time, did you feel you were talented in this area?

I have certainly been interested in playing piano! My musical journey all started when I was at a friend’s birthday party when I was six, and there was an upright piano at his house. Whilst everyone was playing outside, the piano caught my interest, and with my friend’s mother’s permission, I started to ‘play’ the piano. After some time, I realised that every note sounded different to me and I started to pick out tunes, including ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and ‘Happy Birthday’.

I knew which notes were ‘correct’ to the piece or ‘incorrect’, as I was very sensitive to the tone and pitch – this was my discovery of the fact that I already had perfect pitch hearing and had a talent for improvising. A similar story happened during a festival party at my father’s colleague’s house. I touched the piano there, and finally played out some children’s tunes according to the choice of the host and guests. People thus acclaimed that I could play piano without learning.

With this encouragement, my parents later bought me an upright piano. Before having lessons, I played the piano according to my memory of tunes, especially Chinese songs sung by mother and I could gradually accompany her to some extent, although of course my fingering and hand shape were in a mess. After a couple of months, I started to have lessons at a weekend music centre. That was a group class and after several weeks my tutor suggested me to have an individual teacher. My parents then found a university piano student to teach me. I progressed very quickly – after one year, I passed Grade 5 with Distinction, a year later I passed Grade 8 with Distinction, and then at 10, I achieved my Diploma of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

The story above may be associated with your question about musical talent. But what is the talent? Musical talent has much wide meanings, but mainly it relates to the basic elements of music itself, such as pitch, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, harmony and the like. When a person has musical talent, he/she simply takes advantage of these musical elements of intuition and instinct. Regarding pitch, for example, every note has a fixed pitch. Now some people have perfect pitch, which means that the pitches of notes are fixed in the consciousness of their intuition. Therefore, if someone presses a key on the piano, they can know what pitch the pressed key in question is, simply by hearing it. Even when several keys are pressed down at the same time, these people can also hear and differentiate the pitch combination.

If such a person also has a good memory, a strong sense of rhythm, and an instinctive grasp of the scale-order of the keyboard, he/she can then play one-single-lined tones of music melodies. However, to play music using one-single-lined tone is often not enough – it needs accompaniment and harmony. People will find that providing an accompaniment instinctively and spontaneously is far more difficult – the ability of incorporating the single-lined melody and forming an instinctive hierarchically structured sound requires more musical potential. With my teacher’s words, I was fortunate enough to have possessed these perceptions and potential. Of course, all this applies to the question of pitch – there are other aspects of musical talent to discuss, should we have had more space!

2:Most people think that you are a talented pianist, but few of them can understand the hardships you have gone through, can you talk about them?

I certainly agree; to be successful as a pianist requires lots of hard work and sheer dedication. I have been playing piano for twelve years now, and I practice almost every day, although my parents and teachers have not fixed time duration of each day but stress that I should enjoy the practice. Especially during competition and performance preparation, I have to do more so as to meet the quantitative and qualitative requirements of the consequence of practice.

Moreover, I spend much of time composing music as well, since I am a serious and aspiring composer too, and all this adds to the need for hard work also.

3: What is the role of your parents played in your music career?

On my path of musical growth, my parents have always played a very significant role. From giving me lifts to piano lessons, to accompanying me for concerts and competitions, they have been with me and supporting me. In preparation for a performance of a new piece or creating a new composition, my parents are my first audience. I can say that without their encouragement and support, my career wouldn’t have been as smooth as it has been so far. My feeling of gratitude towards my parents is never-ending!

4:Who is the most important person that inspired you to become a famous pianist?

Although my parents, teachers and some music masters are crucial for the development of my musical career, I might say that this ‘most important person’ is myself. The reason is that everything that happens around me is of external conditions, but my own initiative and effort are internal conditions, which are the most central. I love music, love the piano and I have a life ambition of creating high quality performances and compositions for my audience.

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5: According to your document about the Manchester performance, you wrote you feelings about the drama called “YUAN YE”. You explain why you decided to create the piece in a modern style. How do you prepare for original works each time?

‘Piano Concerto – The Wilderness’ is one of my major compositions. With the initiatives and commission by the relatives and the hometown government of Mr. Cao Yu, the late well-known Chinese dramatist, this large-scale musical work was based on Cao’s spoken drama ‘The Wilderness’. It was premiered in the Third Cultural Festival of Cao Yu, organised by the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, Hubei Federation of Literary and Art Circles and the government of Qianjiang City in 2014. It is a work of typical western music, but permeates or disseminates elements of Chinese culture – or at least, it presents a Chinese story of culture with the style and techniques of Western music.

As you said, in terms of musical language, I adopted a modernist style. Apart from the mainstream of the times today, I have learnt that the drama ‘The Wilderness’ itself has demonstrated considerable modernist features, which may be in accordance with the spirit of contemporary music style. Moreover, as regards the plot, the drama highlighted the performance of the hero’s complex mental activity, especially after his murder, whereupon he starts to be full of hallucinations, fear, struggling, painfulness and other emotions, which are more suitable for the modern musical language.

When it comes to normal creational process, just like many other composers, I first set the type of instrumentation, for example, solo, ensemble, or concerto and the like and then determine the language of music styles, such as classical, romantic or contemporary. Next, it’s the structure. Then it’s about inspiration. Sources of inspiration include literature, paintings, music, nature, and so on. Based on the above factors, I make improvisation and the motifs/melodies/themes are recorded, which form the basis of formal creation. Finally, I polish and finalise the music.

6. Could you introduce the Young Classical Artists Trust, how are  your performances arranged?

Young Classical Artists Trust, abbreviated as YCAT, is a music agency in London. After I won the Keyboard Category of BBC Young Musician 2012, the BBC introduced me to YCAT. YCAT manages my performances, but this management does not involve much marketing promotion, but helps with schedules, transportation routes, fees negotiations, and etc. So in my case it is not a commercial but transitional form of management.

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7. You are only 18 years old and you are a student, how do you coordinate your studies and your music career?

I was four when I started primary school and six years old when I started to learn the piano. Academic subjects and music have almost always been with my development. The British schooling system emphasizes the balance of the two directions. This is why I have always focused carefully on my academic subjects too, balancing my music in an efficient manner. In 2008, my classmates and myself at primary school participated in the national SATs exams (Standard Academic Tests), where we were tested in English, mathematics and science (now the new system reform requires just two subjects: English and mathematics). In all the three subjects, I was awarded a Level 5 grade, which was the highest level achievable then (nowadays the highest level achievable is regulated as Level 6).

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For my secondary school education, I went to Chetham’s Music School, where we had more prescribed subjects, including integrated music theory, composition, and piano, as well as English, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, history, French, drama, religious studies and sports. In the 2013 GCSE exams, all the results for my subjects were A * or A. In recent years, my performance schedule has got busier, for example, last year during the September-October school term, I had a two-week performance tour in Scotland, including eight solo concerts. So in this regard, doing many academic subjects has increased my time pressure, but on the other hand, this has motivated me to constantly improve my efficiency of the development of academic studies and music.

8. Apart from Music, what else you are interested in? Where did you get your inspiration from?

Speaking of other hobbies outside of music, I have quite a lot of interests, including television, films, novels, plays, video games, and fitness. Speaking of films, I like many of the latest blockbuster comedies, science fictions, thrillers, dramas, romances, but I also like many classic old movies, though many of my peers seem less interested in them. For classic films such as ‘Gone with the Wind’, ‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Singing in the Rain’, ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘The Red Shoes’, ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘Rebecca’, ‘The Godfather ‘, etc., I have seen them many times.I have also enjoyed many Chinese films, such as ‘A Spring River Flows East ‘,’Early February’ and ‘The Blessing’. I was particularly fond of ‘The Blessing’ by Lu Xun, which I tried to improvise on the piano, with the music language telling the story of Sister Xianglin.

For sports, I love to swim. I also love to travel. I believe it helps my music inspiration. I feel that there are two main areas of the world that are often projected in music: one is the natural landscape, including the moon, clouds, thunder, lightning, storm, animals and flowers; the second is human feelings, including emotion, love, resentment, anger, sorrow, madness and so on.

Travel can go to various views and give rise to feelings from sightseeing. These views and feelings may sometimes have no direct association with your music, but they accumulate within you, whilst resonating through every inch of your spirit and soul, whereupon you can breathe the music, and feel a special sense of energy that is musical inspiration.

9. You have performed in China before? Did you find it different in comparison to performing in the UK? Do you consider your Chinese background a benefit to your career development in the UK?

I was in China in 2014 for a tour of four performances: the first was in September, when my ‘Piano Concerto – The Wilderness’ was premiered in the Third Cultural Festival of Cao Yu. The second time was in November, and I performed at the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music, the Qintai Concert Hall and the Wuhan University. The Central Conservatory of Music and Wuhan University were both solo concerts; about one third of each concert is my own compositions. Going to perform in China, my parents and I had strong feelings. First of all, China’s economy has been showing off a new look in terms of culture. For example, the Qintai concert hall, from the exterior to the interior, was so beautiful and grand in terms of design and building, of which the quality may be quite rarely seen in Western countries.

Secondly, the huge concert hall was packed, indicating the growing popularity of Western classical music in the country. Not only was there enthusiastic applause from the audience at the end of each piece and concert, but they applauded at the end of each song and movement too, suggesting that the audience understood and felt the music. All this was very impressive and inspiring to see.

Chinese culture and art has a long history, and I am proud of my Chinese background. But I’m not yet very clear at this stage whether it will be helpful to my development in the UK. I saw the Chinese people having Western music appreciation, and I hope the West will be more understanding and appreciative of Chinese music. In the past, the music I was writing didn’t usually have much Chinese cultural elements, but anyhow, much of this was broadcast on BBC television and radio, and has been welcomed by viewers and listeners. But on June 24 this year, my ‘Piano Concerto – The Wilderness’ was premiered in Manchester, and this is a work that carries certain elements of Chinese culture and art, and was also welcomed by the local audience – their applause and cheers touched me. This is a cultural exchange, and I hope to contribute further to this direction.

10. What’s your future plan for the music career? Will you be more focused on performance or a creation the new piece?

I was six years old when I started piano, soon afterwards begun to compose. Now in national and international competitions in piano and composing, many of my performances and compositions have won prizes. I will continue to go ahead with both the piano and composition. According to my understanding, good performances can help the composer to make full use of the instrument’s characteristics as regards musical sounds and technique elements so as to expand the expressiveness and effect; on the other hand, good composition can help a player understand music more profoundly, revealing the musical perspective from the composer’s point of view, exploring the musical image and colouring interpretation of music.

From my past, present and future, I have been thinking: in the past playing was more important than the composing; at the current stage, they can be treated equally, but after that, the composing will have more weight than the performing.

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