Yuanfan Yang learned to play the piano in Leeds and is back for its famous competition. He talks to Chris Bond.
Yuanfan Yang was five years old when he first laid eyes on a piano.
It was at a friend’s birthday party in Leeds and it changed his life. “I remember seeing this piano and it struck me as really interesting so I climbed up on to the seat and started to play some notes,” he says.
“I seemed to realise straight away that there was something in the way the notes worked and I knew which were right and which were wrong.”
Yuanfan was so good that his friend’s mother assumed he’d been having lessons. “She rang my mum and said ‘I didn’t know your son played the piano, when did he start lessons?’ My mum just said, ‘what on earth are you talking about, we don’t even have a piano.’”
They quickly realised they had a child prodigy on their hands. “A few months later they bought me an upright piano and I started having lessons and here I am ...” he says.
Here he is indeed. Earlier this year Yuanfan was selected, along with 70 of the world’s most talented young musicians, to take part in this year’s Leeds International Piano Competition, which got underway last week.
Many of the musicians have travelled halfway around the world to take part in the famous competition in a city that Yuanfan, who lived here with his family when he was younger, is very familiar with.
Born in Edinburgh, he moved to the city after his father took up a post as a lecturer at the University of Leeds.
He and his family now live across the Pennines in Manchester, but Yuanfan retains a genuine fondness for Leeds.
It was here at the Horsforth Music Centre that he first started taking piano lessons before going on to become a member of the Yorkshire Young Musicians - a programme that provides advanced training for exceptionally talented young musicians between the ages of eight and 18 from across the region.
Once he started playing the piano Yuanfan says it quickly became his greatest passion. “I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to be a pianist and that I wanted this to be my career for the rest of my life. Once I had that feeling I didn’t let go, I still have that feeling now.”
Yuanfan is an only child - he jokes that “this meant I didn’t have to fight for the piano”. But what makes his story all the more intriguing is the fact that neither of his parents were musicians. “They’re both academics so I think it came as a bit of a shock to them that I could just pick out tunes like that.”
Such was his precocious talent that he passed Grade 8 piano with distinction at the age of eight and by the time he was 10 he’d been awarded a diploma from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.
Since then Yuanfan’s career has blossomed, he’s also won numerous competitions and now has a chance of making the final stages of ‘the Leeds’ - not bad for someone who is still only 18.
To be a concert pianist you not only need a tremendous amount of talent, but also the necessary drive and dedication.
“You’re normally talking about three to four hours of practice a day, it’s all about the quality rather than the quantity,” he says.
It’s an attitude he’s used in the run-up to ‘the Leeds.’ “Everyone has their own way to prepare. I try and have a very open attitude. I practice every day but at the same time you don’t want to get over-worked or stressed. You don’t want to go in expecting too much because you can end up disappointed,” he says.
“I have taken part in lots of competitions in the past but this is the biggest one I’ve ever been involved with. ‘The Leeds’ is among the greatest piano competitions in the world.
“Its prestige and history are almost overwhelming, so I’m just happy to have got this far because this is a great achievement in itself.”
Yuanfan will find out later today if he’s made it through to Sunday’s semi-finals but is playing down his chances.
“I just want to enjoy myself. It’s an honour to able to perform on stage here because this is a tough competition. Just to get through the first round I consider myself fortunate because you’re competing not just with the best, but the best of the best.”
Although he was drawn towards classical music, like most teenagers he enjoys pop music too. “I’m a big fan of musicals and I would love to be involved with this in the future and also film music. I take inspiration from other musicians but also from nature and the world around me,” he explains.
Polite and unassuming he doesn’t come across as the kind of precocious character you perhaps might expect him to be. When I ask him if he has time for other hobbies, he again reels off a list things ranging from visiting art galleries and museums, to swimming and walks in the countryside.
After ‘the Leeds’ finishes next weekend he will embark on a stint working on a cruise ship performing with Julian Lloyd Webber, something he’s very excited about.
“It will be a great honour to play with someone as gifted as him.”
But beyond that he’s simply happy exploring music in all its various forms.
“As a composer in the 21st Century you have to be versatile, but as for the future? We’ll see which way the wind blows.”