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“Be Careful What You Say” by Byron Janis

As Russia has been so prominent in the news of late, I thought I would tell you an amusing story that happened to me and my ex-wife, June, in what was then the Soviet Union.

In 1960, I was honored that I was chosen to open the new Cultural Exchange between our two countries. Two years later, I was so pleased to be invited to return for another concert tour and was given the green light by the authorities here to accept the invitation. Mercury Records was also invited along to make recordings of me. One afternoon while we were at the hotel, I asked their extraordinary recording engineer, Bob Fine, to please find the listening devices in our room because I knew that almost all the rooms had them. It didn’t take long – one was in the telephone and one was in the chandelier – “well done,” we laughed.

That night, I said to June, “Let’s try to have a little fun in ordering breakfast tomorrow morning by not asking for room service over the telephone. Let’s just say, ‘Could we please have more toast.’” The next morning, the breakfast came up and there was more toast than breakfast!

The Power of Pedagogy

August 29th, 2016

In arts education, students must be taught to create, not imitate.

All musicians, even the most gifted ones, need instruction—there are no virgin births, at least not in the modern era. Instruction is the driving force behind any God-given talent’s success.

But teaching is about more than simply telling a student what to do and not do. It is surely one of the most demanding as well as important vocations of all. Parent, instructor, friend, diagnostician—these are some of the things a great teacher must be.

Yet it is also a vocation that is immensely satisfying as one watches a talent grow. I know. For in addition to my career as a concert pianist I have been teaching piano since I was in my 20s.

To me, the most important challenge a teacher must confront is keeping an open mind. One must convey knowledge and artistry without overpowering a student’s sense of self. That talented “self” can develop only when he or she is not over-taught. One must know when to teach and when not to teach.

Many things that I was taught I use in my own teaching. I acquired this particular insight from the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz, with whom I worked in the 1940s: “Something is not right,” he would say. “Please think about it, then work on it. Bring it to me next week.” It put the responsibility squarely into my hands. At first, it was a difficult discipline, but how very much it helped me to grow and gain confidence. It’s important that talented students try to work out certain problems by themselves. Of course, the more talented the student, the more effective the results of that advice. This tells us something else about teaching—that it is a two-way street.

In my own teaching, I’ve taken Horowitz’s idea one step further. I end nearly every lesson saying, “If any of my interpretive ideas don’t feel right, please disregard them.”

During the course of my instruction Horowitz also made a very important point. “You want to be a first Janis—not a second Horowitz.” To that end, he never played for me during a lesson. But outside of lessons he would sometimes play for me, and during those incredible evenings in his home, hearing that great artistry at its very best, it was almost impossible not to have it influence me. I was fortunate that my gift for music was strong enough to survive, but it took me several years to become a “first Janis.” After my Carnegie Hall debut in 1948, he said to me: “You must now go on your own. You will make mistakes, but they’ll be your mistakes.”

Much earlier, I had had an experience that gave me an important insight into the need for a student to have an independent mind. At the age of 9, and already having been studying piano for four years, I was invited to work with the great pianist Josef Lhévinne and his wife, Rosina, a pianist and renowned teacher. One day Mr. Lhévinne disagreed with my interpretation of a piece that I had just learned with Mrs. Lhévinne. I found it difficult to cope with their divergent interpretive opinions. I liked both interpretations; I didn’t feel one was right, the other wrong—just different. I thought if two great teachers didn’t agree, then a talented student could also have a mind of his own. The great lesson I had luckily learned so early was that there was more than one way to play a piece of music—and so it is with everything. As I grew older I realized one ought to “interpret” the teacher as well as the music!

But teaching can take many forms. The great composer-pianist Frederic Chopin said: “Don’t practice so much but listen to great singers. Go to the opera, then you will learn how to phrase a melody!” To turn a piano, a percussion instrument—felt hammers hitting steel strings—into a singing one should be one of the primary goals of a pianist.

I have sometimes asked my students to sing a short melody, then play it on the piano. Invariably it comes out slower when they play it than when they had sung it. Breathing is not a factor while playing the piano, but nature governs how long a breath can be held by and controlled by singers. That, in turn, becomes the main source of beautiful phrasing. Pianists need to approach their phrasing at the keyboard as singers do their voices.

Beyond this, talented students must be taught that they are not only pianists but artists, and to create, not imitate. They should be shown that inspiration comes from living, experiencing and observing life, the real as well as the imagined. Life—this is perhaps the most important teacher of all. Hard work alone is not the solution.
Mr. Janis is a world-renowned concert pianist particularly known for his interpretations of Chopin and Rachmaninoff.

fight against Bigotry and Prejudice

The fight against Bigotry and Prejudice is a never ending battle. Each of us must do our part in hoping to enlighten darkened consciences. Today I applaud Bruce Springsteen . He canceled his upcoming North Carolina concert in protest of the states gender biased ” bathroom laws”! Back in March 1965 when I was scheduled to play a concert in Mobile, Alabama.Then the horrendous events of Bloody Sunday happened in Selma, with police attacking and turning their dogs on Martin Luther Kings peaceful marchers.

I was so horrified at what was taking place, I canceled my upcoming Alabama concert in protest of the actions of the authorities.

We must continue to Care!


Quote from Chopin

My favorite quote is one from Chopin, “Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers, finds the most wonderful stars. Beethoven infuses the universe with the power of his spirit. I do not climb so high. A long time ago, I decided my universe would be the soul and heart of man.”

Chopin knew that climbing higher was not the only way to reach heaven.

— Byron Janis

Edgar Mitchell

I’m very saddened by the death this week of Apollo 14’s Captain Edgar Mitchell, astronaut, pioneer, visionary. He was a friend whose revolutionary life did not stop when he returned to Earth after walking on the Moon. He was a man who did not feel that he had no more worlds to conquer.

He explored outer space and then spent the rest of his life exploring inner space and what it means to have the human capacities we all do: to reach into the unknown and to grow in ways unimagined. He was the founder of IONS (Institute of Noetic Sciences and challenged scientists and all of us to grapple with the question of what is consciousness. He said, “We went to the Moon as technicians and we came back as humanitarians.” How can you look back from the depth of space to our mighty yet little planet – a blue marble in the darkness – and not be profoundly changed.

This quote also relates to music. It is all too easy with a certain degree of talent, to become a master technician at the piano – but does your musical journey take you and your audience to the heart of your own humanity?

Chopin said, “Bach is like an astronomer who with the help of cyphers finds the most wonderful stars. Beethoven infuses the universe with the power of his spirit. I do not climb so high. A long time ago, I decided my universe would be the soul and the heart of man.”

I was so happy when Edgar agreed to write a comment on the back cover of my memoir, Chopin ….He spent his life in exploration and I hope he will continue to inspire all of us.

In Praise Of Jimmy Carter

Last month I was so inspired when I heard with what courage and grace President Jimmy Carter handled his diagnosis of serious cancer – and then, in spite of that, he went to teach his usual Sunday School classes. I was reminded of a marvelous and important event at the White House in 1980 when he inaugurated the Department of Education and celebrated that with a Tribute to Teachers in a “Salute to Learning Day.” I was so happy to be a part of honoring the two vital teachers in my life, Adele Marcus and Vladimir Horowitz. Six of us gave an homage to those most special people in our lives – our teachers, and we were fortunate to have wonderful ones. The profession is not given enough recognition for the responsibility it has in shaping our lives – at times even more than our parents. Good teachers are not always easy to find but if you are passionate about what you want to do, keep looking. I would like to share with you the poem that was on the back of the White House invitation:

A Tribute to an Honorable Teacher Don’t name him Teacher, say, or Speaker Unless you probe the meaning of the Word. Names mill and choke us like a restless Herd. Conceal Old Truths and Values from the Seeker. And often Pretense, Posture are preferr’d. Numbered Nothing is computed and promoted. While Truth is fear’d and Beauty goes unnoted. Remember Passerby, his Trade was Man, Owning himself like Jim, born free like Huck, Born with an Essence bigger than his Luck. Inspired by Giants when they were in the Land, Nourishing minds till Wisdom makes them Whole – So is the Man! Behold his Master Soul, Older than Time, Young as the break of day! No busy world can take his Gift away. Tom Sutherland

President Carter continues to teach us every day by the way he chooses to live his life with all his zest possible and his faith in the larger plan for all of us.

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Juvenile Arthritis Conference in Washington DC: A Guest Post

I attended my first Juvenile Arthritis Conference last weekend in Washington, DC. What amazed me more than anything were the children that I met and spoke to. I was especially surprised to see some of them running and jumping much like any other child you’d see. Watching all these children, it was hard to believe any of them had any form of arthritis. In speaking with someone from the conference, I mentioned that, and she said that just 15 years ago it was a different story. Most of the children were in wheel chairs, but with the advent of biologic drugs, taken at an early age, these children now were either in remission or their symptoms were seriously curtailed.

I watched the children participate in a number of the events geared to the age levels that started at six and ran up to teen-age. No matter the age, they were all excited to be back among friends from previous conferences who were just like them. For a moment they didn’t feel different.

One of the events was a trio of sessions with Byron Janis entitled, “Mind Over Matter” attended by three age groups of children. It was amazing to see how he interacted with the children and how he captivated them. He explained to them how he was stricken with psoriatic arthritis in his hands and wrists and how he used his mind to overcome adversity so he could continue his career.

The closing ceremony featured Byron speaking to the parents. He spoke of how privileged he was to be working with such courageous children sharing the same techniques that he had learned during his 40 year career. He also touched on the need for government funding for research because he believes that one day a cure will be found.

Weekend At the Juvenile Arthritis Conference and BOD Dinner.

IMG_1088 I arrived at the JA Conference and attended the Board of Directors dinner on Friday evening, July 8th where I caught up with old friends David Shuey, Chair of the Board and Dr. John Klippel, President and CEO of the Arthritis Foundation. Dr. Klippel was surprised to learn that I was an avid baseball fan. And, of course coming from Pittsburgh, the Pirates are my favorite team. On Saturday, children, tweens and teens attended my “Mind Over Matter” sessions. I really love working with the children and telling them how I overcame my arthritis and that they can to with the right mind-set and determination. I like to show them some of the techniques that have worked for me over the years. It was surprising to hear one of the 8 year olds asked what I couldn’t do and another said she wanted to be just like me. Among the pieces of music that I played for them was Happy Birthday, because every day is a new day. I always tell them to have more than one dream in case one doesn’t work out. On Sunday at the closing ceremony, I spoke to the parents and told them my story and also related my experiences with their children the day before. I am so honored to work with these courageous children and I am already looking forward to next year’s conference in Indianapolis. Before playing for the parents, I asked that everybody get in touch with their Congressional leaders to urge funding for research because there will be a cure.