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Inside Niu Niu’s World: Name, Factory Tour, and the SK-EX

In May 2024, the Chinese pianist Niu Niu visited Japan for a concert tour. During the tour, he took the time to visit the Kawai Ryuyo factory. We spoke with him about his music, his interest in Japan, his hobbies outside of music, and his thoughts on the Shigeru Kawai pianos.


A digest version of the interview

Performance video with SK-EX


Origin of name and childhood

Your real name is Zhang, right? Why do you go by Niu Niu?

Yes, my real name is Sheng-liang Zhang. I was born in the Year of the Ox (chinese zodiac), and in Chinese, the word for ox is pronounced “Niu.” When I was born, my parents gave me the nickname “Niu Niu.” When I started touring in Europe at the age of seven, people found Niu Niu easier to remember and pronounce than my real name Sheng-liang Zhang. So, Niu Niu became my English name and stage name.

You debuted at the age of 6 and entered the Shanghai Conservatory of Music as the youngest student at the age of 8. It must have been mostly adults around you since childhood. Did you ever get to play with children your age?

Actually, my main playmate during my childhood was the piano. My classmates at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music were all very dedicated to their piano practice, so we often gathered around the piano and had piano battles. I think it was really fun. I often won those battles, but I saw it as an opportunity for all of us to improve together. I always look back on those times fondly.


Purpose of coming to Japan

What is the purpose of your visit to Japan this time?

I’m in Japan for a concert tour. I recently performed two successful concerts at The Symphony Hall in Osaka. On the 18th, I will be performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Pacific Philharmonia Tokyo under the baton of conductor Lio Kuokman at Suntory Hall in Tokyo. I’ve been performing at Suntory Hall since I was 11 years old, and I am truly delighted to return to this wonderful venue.

I have always loved Rachmaninoff’s concerto, and it was included in the first concerto album I released when I was around 16 years old. Additionally, during this trip, I had the opportunity to visit the Kawai factory, which was an incredible experience for me. In recent years, I have been very fond of Kawai pianos. Last month, I used a Shigeru Kawai at my piano recital in Shanghai. I am truly delighted to have the opportunity to visit the Kawai factory between concerts this time.


Impressions about the Ryuyo factory

This is your first visit to the factory. How do you feel about it? Could you share your impressions?

I was deeply moved. I truly think it is wonderful. Because the factory is situated in nature, they can create natural tones. I believe that the people at the factory can make such beautiful Kawai pianos because they have a sense of mission and a love for the piano. I think it’s amazing.

at the ryuyo

In the anechoic chamber of the Ryuyo factory


How to spend time in Japan

When you visit Japan, you often stay for quite a long time. What do you do on your days off?

On my days off, I love visiting tourist attractions and scenic spots. During my “Forest of Piano (Japanese TV anime)” tour in Japan last month, I had about three days off and stayed in Tokyo. It was cherry blossom season, so I looked up famous hanami (flower viewing) spots online and went to see the cherry blossoms. They were incredibly beautiful, and I took a lot of photos. Of course, I also continued to practice for my next performances.

Where do you practice?

I always practice at Kawai Omotesando, and I am truly grateful for that.


Interests in Japan

Your Japanese is really good. How did you reach such a high level?

Thank you. It’s not that good, but in the beginning, I enrolled in an online Japanese course and studied with a Japanese teacher for the first six months. After about six months of studying, I could answer many questions on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, but I still couldn’t speak Japanese at all. So, I changed my study method and started listening to a lot of Japanese radio and regularly chatting with Japanese people. Gradually, I became able to speak Japanese. In recent years, during my tours in Japan, I have even been able to introduce the pieces I perform on stage, which has been great.

I occasionally check your Instagram, and I remember seeing a picture of ramen on your story before. Do you like ramen?

Yes, I do. Ramen is not only delicious but also convenient during concert tours when schedules are always very tight. It’s a quick way to get various nutrients. Plus, ramen tastes different depending on the region, so I enjoy it everywhere I go.


Talking with Kawai staff in Japanese


About the concert of the anime “Forest of Piano”

Last month, you performed at the Piano Concert 2024 of Forest of Piano (Japanese TV anime), where you played the piano for the character Wei Pang. How do you feel about this? What are your thoughts on portraying Wei Pang?

Yes, that’s right. I’ve actually been involved in the Forest of Piano tours since 2018, but this tour was the first time I performed as Wei Pang alone. In addition to the pieces Wei Pang played, I also played pieces performed by other characters from the anime. On stage, I introduced all the pieces in Japanese. It was a very memorable experience, spread over several performances.

Do you think you resemble Wei Pang?

I think there’s a bit of resemblance. Wei Pang in the first season of Forest of Piano is quite cold, but in the second season, he becomes a bit warmer. Music played a significant role in that transformation. I also find music to be incredibly important during difficult times, as it gives me various strengths and energies.

How was the audience response to the concert?

At the end of each performance, everyone stood up for a standing ovation, which I’m incredibly grateful for. For the encore, I performed “energy flow” by Ryuichi Sakamoto, as well as a classical medley that combined eight famous classical pieces. I think everyone enjoyed it.


Interests other than music

What other things outside of music inspire you or capture your interest?

One of my biggest hobbies lately has been dance, particularly in genres like hip-hop and K-pop. When I’m not on concert tours, I take dance classes in Hong Kong several times a week, around three to four times. My friends were quite surprised when I started doing this. Dancing helps me relax, improves my physicality and expression, and it’s a great way to learn new skills while staying active.

Does that mean it’s possible to see Niu Niu’s piano playing and dancing together at your concerts in the future?

That’s a bit… not very realistic, but maybe. Actually, I don’t want to confine myself to just classical music; I want to become more like an idol pianist. There may be various possibilities in the future. I’ve been studying singing as well. Also, I’ve been composing since 2020, so I want to explore different things too.

I see you sing too.

Actually, lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Japanese pop songs. Songs like “Manatsu no Kajitsu” (Midsummer Fruit) and “Kowarekake no Radio” (Broken Radio). Various ones. And I love MISIA as well. I think listening to Japanese songs can also help with studying Japanese.

It sounds like you have a diverse range of talents. I’ll definitely look forward to concerts where you dance, sing, and play the piano!

I’m also looking forward to it!


At Nakatajima Dune in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka


Future goals and activities

Could you tell us about your upcoming activities in Japan?

I am planning a recital tour in Japan in October of this year (2024). I also have plans to collaborate with Japanese orchestras for concerto performances next year.

Is there any composer you would like to challenge in the future? Why?

I recently released a new album featuring Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Jaap van Zweden. I’ve grown to love Tchaikovsky’s concertos, so now I’d like to tackle his Piano Concerto No. 2 and No. 3. I aspire to perform and record the complete set of Tchaikovsky’s concertos, and that’s a challenge I look forward to taking on.


A commemorative photo with Kawai staff at the Hamamatsu station on the way home


Comments on the Shigeru Kawai piano

It has an incredibly beautiful tone, and I believe it can sing like a string instrument or a singer. I think it has a sound that can move the heart. I always strive for a wide and rich dynamic range, and the SK-EX is truly a pleasure to play because it can convey sound softly over a distance without becoming harsh when played powerfully. It provides a wonderful playing experience. I live in Hong Kong, and I practice on the Shigeru Kawai almost every day. I would be delighted to have the opportunity to select a beautiful Shigeru Kawai for my upcoming piano recital tour in Japan and to have the chance to tour with it for the entire duration.


Playing the SK-EX at the Ryuyo factory


About Niu Niu

Niu Niu (real name: Shengliang Zhang) was born into a musical family in Xiamen, Fujian province, China in 1997, showing talent at the age of three. He debuted in concert at six and enrolled in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music at eight, later attending the New England Conservatory and graduating from The Juilliard School in 2018.

In 2007, he became the youngest pianist to sign an exclusive contract with EMI Classics (now Warner Classics), releasing numerous albums. In 2016, he recorded Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Paganini Rhapsody with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jacek Kaspszyk.

Recent highlights include performances at the Prague Dvorak Festival and touring 16 cities in China in 2016. In Japan, he debuted at Suntory Hall and Symphony Hall Osaka at the age of 10 and has had successful recital tours. He also provided the piano performance for the character Wei Pang in the anime “Piano no Mori” (Forest of Piano).

For more information about Niu Niu, please visit his social medias via the links below:




X (Twitter):


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