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The Wall Street Journal Archives - Byron Janis

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.

How Music Soothes the Troubled Soul

What an extraordinary gift music has given us besides its beauty. It has a scientifically proven ability to help heal both physical and psychological problems. Listening to your favorite music does help, but playing an instrument has a greater success. Playing well or badly doesn’t matter; just using one finger to plunk out a tune is sufficient—you can come away with a feeling of well-being. Music’s healing powers, which Pythagoras called “musical medicine,” have been the leitmotif of my career.

Photo: Yuri Dojc/Getty Images
Photo: Yuri Dojc/Getty Images

To an outsider it might seem that playing the same works repeatedly over many years could become a rote exercise. To me, any musician who feel this way has lost what I call his or her “inner child,” the force that enables the artist’s music to sound spontaneous. In the rare instances when my inner child has begun “misbehaving,” when a piece has started feeling stale to me, I have immediately stopped performing the score until I could look at it with fresh eyes again. It is music’s unstoppable ability to uplift and inspire that makes a career in music so greatly rewarding.

When I was 14, I followed my piano teacher, Adele Marcus, to Dallas, where I encountered segregation for the first time. It was the 1940s, and the feeling of injustice affected me deeply. Some 22 years later, I was in New Orleans getting ready to travel to my next concert in Mobile, Ala., when I turned on the television and saw the terrible confrontation in Selma between the peaceful marchers and the police with their vicious dogs. It so horrified me that I canceled the Alabama concert and returned to New York.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Still upset, I asked myself if there was a piece of music that could help me express my feelings and shake my somber mood. Chopin’s G Minor Ballade came to mind, and I immediately sat down at my piano and immersed myself in it and its many voices. I played it again and again. In the several weeks to follow, it became my companion. The opening starts with a declamatory musical statement, the last 3 notes of which indicate some of the sadness to come. I felt the courageous “We will never give up” attitude of the protesters was captured by the Ballade.

In 1960, at the height of the Cold War, I was asked by the State Department to open the first formal Cultural Exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. As I walked onto the stage for my opening recital in Moscow, there was no applause, only hostile shouts of “U-2, U-2, U-2” and “Kleeburn, Kleeburn, Kleeburn!” from the audience. It didn’t take long to know what that meant. The Soviets had just shot down our U-2 spy plane, and anti-American propaganda was rampant. “Kleeburn” referred to Van Cliburn, who two years before had won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, in the process becoming “their boy”—in their eyes there was only one great American pianist and they had discovered him.

Somehow I steeled myself while waiting for the shouts to subside. Then I began playing, first performing Mozart’s Sonata in G major K.283, then Robert Schumann’s “Arabeske” and the great Chopin Funeral March Sonata. By the intermission, I sensed that I was having a great success. When the recital was over, I was overwhelmed by the deafening applause. People were crowding to the edge of the stage and many were weeping. To see how music changed the atmosphere from hostility to tears showed me how music’s magnetism can quickly affect the human psyche. And so it went for four exhilarating weeks of concertizing.

Music has also helped me conquer physical challenges. From an accident at age 11 that left me with a permanently numb little finger to living with arthritis for 40-plus years, music has been a constant healing force. In the late 1980s after a botched operation on my arthritic left thumb, I fell into a devastating depression lasting many months. Then one day my wife, Maria, asked me to compose a theme for a film documentary on her father entitled “Gary Cooper: American Life, American Legend” (1989). I didn’t feel up to it, but as it was “family” I wanted to try.

After a few days I came up with a theme and played it for her. She suddenly began crying. “Why are you crying?” I asked. “Because your music totally captures my father’s spirit.” It also recaptured me! That wonderful feeling of hope was coming back, and my depression slowly began to lift. Music had started working its magic.

Mr. Janis is a world-renowned concert pianist particularly known for his interpretations of Chopin and Rachmaninoff.

A Healing Art

Updated May 7, 2014 6:55 p.m. ET


Can music heal? There’s been a great deal of study by neuroscientists on the different ways music acts upon the brain, affecting our behavior, memory and the like. But there is also growing scientific evidence attesting to its curative powers.

Many ancient cultures used sound and music for healing. Pythagoras called it “music medicine.” In the Middle Ages, the study of music became a mandatory part of a physician’s education.

In this country, music therapy began to develop as a profession during World War I, and in World War II music was incorporated into the Army’s Reconditioning Program under direct supervision of medical personnel, the first official recognition of music as a therapeutic aid by the military. And in the 1930s researchers discovered that sounds made by the ancients’ drums, rattles and didgeridoos—so-called ultrasound—had huge diagnostic and healing properties. Today there are more than 5,000 certified music therapists in the U.S., and more than 70 colleges and universities offer music-therapy programs treating everything from posttraumatic stress disorder to Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and pain.

In his book “Awakenings,” the British-American neurologist Oliver Sacks writes of patients who went from being catatonic to fully functional when music was added to their environment.

In our own time there have been many stories about the healing power of music. One of the most famous is William Styron’s. He writes of the moment music saved him from suicide in “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.” While watching “The Bostonians” on television in the 1980s, he heard Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody on the soundtrack. The music brought back “all the joys the house had known. … All this I realized was more than I could ever abandon. … And just as powerfully I realized I could not commit this desecration on myself.”

After Gabrielle Giffords was shot in 2011, intensive singing therapy slowly brought back her ability to speak.

I recently witnessed the healing effects of music first hand. As part of their “National Initiative for Arts and Health in the Military,” I was invited by Americans for the Arts to visit the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and participate in “Stages of Healing.” This program, created by Dr. Micah Sickel, helps patients learn how to play a musical instrument and facilitates live performances whose aim, according to the hospital, is to “enhance the healing process … enrich the lives of patients, visitors and staff” and help relieve the stress often associated with a hospital setting.

I knew what I wanted to play for them—two Chopin waltzes and “A Hero’s Passing By” (which I had written for a TV documentary on my wife’s father, Gary Cooper, but performed here as a dedication to all the world’s heroes). I then played two songs from a musical I had written about the Hunchback of Notre Dame. One was a love song and the other is titled “Like Any Man,” which I felt very much suited the occasion. The Hunchback sings that although he is so disabled, he is just like any man.

The piano was placed in the middle of a beautiful, large, circular, blue, star-ringed carpet in a spacious open area. Furniture was arranged on one side so people could sit on couches and chairs quite close to the piano. On the other side, folding chairs were set up for an audience who, given their medical schedules, family visits, etc., were able to come go as needed. It felt like there was very intense listening going on and, for me, very emotional playing. There was a sense of activity everywhere—patients, staff, visitors, all getting on with their lives.

After my performance, my wife and I talked with some of our brave young veterans suffering from a range of physical and psychological conditions. Many told me how much music had helped their recovery.

Barry Bittman is a renowned neurologist and top researcher in the studies of sound, music and the brain. He is the president of the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute, with which I am affiliated. I once asked him whether there was a difference in the effects of listening to versus playing music. “Statistically significant benefits,” he said, “extended exclusively to the group creating music,” which requires “a high level of engagement on many levels.” Dr. Bittman’s research on creative musical expression, even for people convinced that they were not musical, also recently proved that playing any kind of instrument—no matter how well or badly—enhances the brain’s ability to facilitate healing.

This is confirmed in another program at Walter Reed called Musicorps, where, working with professional musicians, computer-based music workstations and actual instruments, patients learn, play, compose and record music. It is designed to help patients suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury. “Learning, creating, and performing music involves so many aspects of brain function that it is believed to recruit uninjured parts of the brain to compensate for parts that have been injured, and help those parts that are injured recover,” notes the hospital in its literature on the program.

The memory of our visit to Walter Reed stayed with us long after we’d returned home, and I wanted to be more involved. Then I learned about Music for All Seasons, which hosts performances at venues in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and California. Founded by husband and wife Brian Dallow and Rena Fruchter out of the belief that live music has “a therapeutic, educational and healing influence on all who listen and participate,” it is now in its 22nd season. Their newest initiative, Voices of Valor, brings groups of six to 10 veterans together with two musician facilitators to write their lyrics to a group song, set it to music and record it in a professional studio. The CD is then presented to the veterans’ friends and family.

I visited a transitional housing facility in Glen Gardner, N.J., called Veteran’s Haven North, where men who had served in various wars were in the middle of an eight-week program. I asked to hear their stories and they asked me if I would share mine. (Though they were not the result of combat, I have had serious injuries to my hands and disabilities to overcome in the course of my 75-year career as a concert pianist.) As we shared our experiences and feelings, I played the same music as I had at Walter Reed.

They then sang me a powerful song they were working on. Here are some of the lyrics:

On the outside I’m fine

On the inside are scars

We’re fighting for a freedom

But the freedom’s not ours

Just because I’m not on the battlefield

Doesn’t mean I’m not at war

May not be who I used to be

But I’m so much more

Several weeks later I was elated to learn that one of the men was so inspired that he planned to take a course in music at Rutgers University. I only wished they knew how much they inspired me.

Mr. Janis is a world-renowned concert pianist particularly known for his interpretations of Chopin, and the author of “Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal,” an autobiography.

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Nurturing Creativity in the Next Generation


We hear a lot about piano performance but not about piano teaching, other than when program notes inform us that so-and-so studied with so-and-so or at such-and-such conservatory. Yet we should know more about it. As Rousseau observed, the child is the father of the man: The budding pianist’s lessons shape the concert artist the public later hears.

Over the course of my career as a student, performer and teacher, I’ve realized there is no “right way” to teach the piano. But there is one cardinal rule that should be every teacher’s credo: It is essential to allow talent its own creativity, and not give in to the temptation to impose your own.

We were living in Pittsburgh when I had my first piano lesson, at age 4, with Abraham Litow, who had studied at the prestigious Music Conservatory in Leningrad. At my first lesson he began teaching me scales. After some moments, he asked my mother, who was chaperoning me, for a glass of water. I was startled to see that, instead of drinking it, he placed it on the back of my right hand. “Let’s play a little game,” he said. I thought, what fun to start with a game! He said the object was to keep my hand as still as possible while playing so that no water would spill.

I couldn’t have been less successful. The water began to spill immediately. But instead of reacting with amusement, he reprimanded me severely and made me try it over and over. I wondered what other “little games” were in store for me.


The budding pianist’s lessons shape the concert artist the public later hears, writes Byron Janis.

It didn’t take long to find out. “The Wrong Note Punishment” was next. Each time I played one, down came a stinging ruler smack on my hand. Somehow I managed not to cry, but my mother was deeply upset by Litow’s methods. He explained very sweetly, “Mrs. Yanks, he is benefiting from the same exclusive treatment I received in Russia. Do you wish to baby him playing wrong notes?” My mother protested no further. It seemed for the rest of the lesson, much to my relief, he used his weapon with somewhat less force, and as I began playing fewer wrong notes the ruler was thankfully put aside.

Then one day, when I was 7, Litow announced to my mother, “I have nothing left to teach him.” I was surprised. Was that all there was to learn? I will forever be indebted to him for what he did next. Though they hadn’t met, he telephoned New York and spoke with the great pianist and teacher Josef Lhévinne and his wife Rosina, also a superb pianist and teacher. It seems Mother Russia was the perfect entrée. They agreed to hear me. I played the first movement of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. When they accepted me, you couldn’t have found a more excited 7-year-old anywhere.

Sometimes, during a lesson, the Lhévinnes would argue about a phrase I had just played. Those arguments taught me one of the most important lessons of my young life: that even great artists disagree. There was more than one way to play a piece of music. What freedom it gave me at that young age, and how much it helped me in my later studies when I needed to preserve my musical identity.

Josef Lhévinne had studied at the Moscow Conservatory, which I hoped had different teaching methods from the one in Leningrad. His English was difficult for me to understand, but he could demonstrate visually what he wanted. Once, while I was playing a piece called “Run Run,” he stopped me, got down on all fours, and crawled around the room prestissimo. I understood: My “running” needed more speed and spirit.

When the Lhévinnes’ concert schedule required them to travel more, I began studying with their pupil and associate teacher, Adele Marcus, and continued playing for them periodically. Having had much technical training by that point, Marcus concentrated more on other aspects of performing. She had also studied with the great pianist Arthur Schnabel, and passed along his thoughts on Beethoven: how the classic side of Beethoven should not exclude his romantic side. Schnabel taught the freedom of the heart must always be present, she said.

By chance, on Feb. 20, 1944, the great Vladimir Horowitz heard me play in Pittsburgh. In town for his own recital, he had been invited by the manager of the Pittsburgh Symphony to hear me, a 16-year-old pianist, play under a 14-year-old conductor named Lorin Maazel. How honored I was when he later asked me to become his very first pupil! His one condition was that I not play for anyone during our first year. “During experimentation in becoming ‘bigger’ pianist, their opinions will confuse you,” he explained.

As my lessons progressed, he offered me pieces of advice that have proved invaluable:

  • “You must make piano sing more. And colors, colors-you paint well in watercolors but must paint more in oils.”
  • “You can be a big Romantic pianist and at first, you will exaggerate. Don’t worry. It’s easier to subtract from something good than to add.”
  • “When you say something, you must underline it-you don’t play for you.”
  • If he didn’t like the way a piece sounded, he would make me find my own way. “Please think about it more and bring it next time.”

Horowitz never played for me during lessons, but on many glorious evenings I was a privileged listener. It was impossible not to absorb some of that magnificent playing. That is one of the drawbacks of studying with a great pianist. You must say to yourself, “I wouldn’t do that”-and have the strength not to. Aware of the temptations, he would always say, “You want to be a first Janis, not a second Horowitz.” I battled for some years before I became me.

Teaching is a great responsibility, no matter what the field. You become instructor, parent, friend, diagnostician and psychologist-trying to understand and cure any problem that might arise.

I once had a gifted young student who became a wonderful pianist, but the artist in her needed to be developed. I couldn’t find a way to free her. One day, I happened to ask if she always walked home the same way. “Yes,” she replied. I suggested taking different routes: “You’ll make new discoveries. It will be fun.”

Within a month, I heard signs of the artist emerging. That simple suggestion seemed to touch the right nerve and her playing started showing signs of freedom. I was amazed. Strange-teachers never can predict what works.

Mr. Janis is a world – renowned concert pianist particularly known for his interpretations of Chopin. PBS is airing a documentary about his life and J. Wiley has just published his memoirs.
Reproduced with permission of the Wall Street Journal

Chopin’s ‘Soul and Heart’


March 1 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great composer and pianist Frédéric François Chopin. Or was it? Not according to his sister Ludwika, Franz Liszt and Chopin’s close friend Jules Fontana. They all said, at one time or another, that he was born on March 1, 1 809, despite Chopin’s insisting his birthday was a year later. To add to the mystery, there is a birth certificate issued by the parish church in Brochów, Poland (and on display there to this day)-near Zelazowa Wola, the small town outside Warsaw where Chopin was born. It gives us still another date: Feb. 22, 1810, the same date inscribed on Polish monuments and on his burial site at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Chopin was born of a French father and a Polish mother, and though he lived half his life in Paris, his heart and soul were always with Poland. His passion for music showed itself early-even at age 3 he would cry whenever he heard it. His mother, an amateur pianist, decided to give him lessons and taught him what little she knew. Fortunately, both his later piano teachers recognized the boy’s genius and did not try to force the conventional methods of playing on him. They let him go his own way, freeing him to become the unique, great pianist he was.

At age 7 he wrote his first composition and gave his first public recital-to tremendous acclaim. He continued studying piano and composition at the Warsaw Lyceum and gave highly successful concerts that made him the toast of Warsaw.

In 1831 Chopin moved to Paris, where he spent his time performing and teaching piano. It was there that he met George Sand, who became his lover. The two spent many summers at Sand’s country home in Nohant, where Chopin composed some of his greatest music.

After their eight-year love affair ended in 1847, Chopin was never the same. He died less than two years later. The cause was thought to be tuberculosis, but the autopsy stated “cause unknown.” His close friends agreed that he died of a broken heart.

In 39 brief years Chopin managed to compose over 180 works for piano, and except for three piano sonatas and two concertos, most of them last no more than three to five minutes. Chopin’s mastery of the genre shows itself in his magical preludes and mazurkas. His 24 études, which are basically technically challenging exercises, have been transformed into beautiful music by Chopin’s genius.

The ballade, full of dramatic intensity, mainly inspired by Polish epic poems, was a new musical form invented by Chopin. He converted the scherzo, originally a musical jest, into a work of a completely different nature. “How is gravity to clothe itself if humor wears such dark veils?” Robert Schumann once observed of these works. Chopin also transformed the polonaise, a dance that predated him, into a Polish processional march. One Chopin polonaise even gave us the popular song “Till the End of Time.”

Chopin was born just as the Romantic Period started-in fact, he was one of its initiators. But in his outlook he also harked back to the Classical Period of Bach and Mozart-the only two composers he really loved. He blended classical restraint with romantic feeling, detesting any exaggeration that would turn sentiment into sentimentality. To recognize that is to play Chopin’s music the way he wanted it played-the way he himself played it. Yet there’s more to it than that. To play his music as he felt it (as we learn from his writings) is to free it of all earthly bonds. As artists, that is our greatest challenge.

Chopin’s physical strength was limited not only by his delicate physique, but by his battle with tuberculosis. As a result, many who heard him perform in public auditoriums complained that his tone was almost inaudible. Yet genius that he was, he found a way to handle and transcend his limitations. He devised a tonal palette scaled down to the softest sound possible, increasing to a mezzo forte (half-loud) that sounded like a fortissimo by way of contrast.

Like the man, Chopin’s music was a mystery. Nothing like it had ever been heard before, nor has it been since. Liszt would introduce Chopin to friends with words that captured that otherworldly quality: “I want you to meet a man who comes from another planet.”

No word is more important in describing the playing of Chopin’s music than rubato. It comes from the Italian word robare, to rob, but in music it means “give and take.” If you steal a little time here, you’ve got to give it back. For example, in playing a melodic phrase, if you go forward in the first two bars, you must pull back in the next two so that the freedom you took does not break the rhythmical pulse. The classic feeling will come from the left hand, which Chopin insisted should be played as evenly as possible. Then the right hand can have its romance and play as freely as the left hand will allow. Every performer will use that freedom differently, and that is the beauty of the “disciplined freedom” that makes Chopin Chopin.

Chopin said the Polish word zal-a “bittersweet melancholy”-best described much of his music. Paradoxically, it can also mean anger, even rage, an emotion also found in Chopin’s musical vocabulary. Schumann agreed, describing Chopin’s music as “cannons buried in flowers.” For example, listen to the Ballade in G-minor and the Scherzo in C-sharp minor.

When I was 7 and first “met” Chopin, his music touched a special place in me that nothing else had. I wanted to know more about the man. I discovered he was, like his music, filled with intense emotions and tender poetry.

It was not only playing his music that brought me close to Chopin. In 1955 I visited Nohant, and had the thrill of unexpectedly meeting George Sand’s granddaughter, Aurore Lauth Sand. She was 11 when her grandmother died in 1876 and remembered her vividly. To have played a Chopin nocturne for her, in the very room where it was written, was one of my life’s most unforgettable moments.

Then in 1990 Andrew Borey, the great-great-grandson of Chopin’s sister Ludwika, walked into my life. This charming, elegant Polish gentleman and I became very special friends. When I recorded an all-Chopin CD in 1996, you can imagine how moving it was for me to have Andrew and his son George sitting on the stage with me.

Chopin’s own words perhaps best describe him: “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.

Reproduced with permission of the WSJ

In Praise of Infidelity


In an interview last April, before his performance of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at London’s Covent Garden, the noted opera and orchestral conductor Semyon Bychkov stated: “You start trying to be faithful to a composer’s score but great masterpieces give you enormous possibilities for interpretation. You can serve the music without being subservient.” The statement of St. Augustine could apply: “Love God and do what you will.”

Mr. Bychkov was absolutely correct. Unfortunately, he was expressing a minority view. An oft-heard adage has it that the greatest artists are always faithful to and play only what is written in the score. A somewhat similar sentiment is expressed by the brilliant American musician and music historian Gunther Schuller: “A conductor is the faithful guardian of the score-the score is a sacred document.” However, the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals disagreed: “The art of interpretation is not to play what is written.” Our interpretation of what is written cannot, in fact, be written down.

The score is really a blueprint for our creative talents and, consequently, our interpretive options abound. We interpret not only the music but the verbal directions the composer has given us. No score will tell you how to play allegro (quickly)-there are a lot of different “quicklies” to go around. No score will give you the coordinates for playing rubato (freely), agitato (agitated) or semplice (simply). Nor will it tell you how to adapt the pedal indications, which applied to 19th-century pianos-a far cry from the very sonorous ones of today.

Composers occasionally specified with metronome markings the exact speed of a tempo they desired. Arturo Toscanini once confided to John Pfeiffer, a recording engineer at RCA Victor, that he preferred a faster tempo in a work of Beethoven than the composer’s metronome markings indicated. But after a long inner struggle, he decided he should stick with the score as written, saying, “I’d rather be wrong with Beethoven.” A passage in a letter written by Brahms could have eased his dilemma. “As far as my experience goes,” Brahms wrote, “every composer who has given metronome marks has sooner or later withdrawn them.”

The great composer Robert Schumann definitely had a malfunctioning metronome judging by some of his tempo markings. At the end of his G-minor Sonata he wrote, “As fast as possible,” and shortly thereafter, “Still faster.” If the “faithful-to-the-score people” ever thought of being unfaithful, that would surely be the time!

Do composers regard their work as sacrosanct as the demands for fidelity to the score would suggest? The answer might surprise you.

In 1960, I opened the cultural exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and brought Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata to play. Never having performed it before, I wanted to play it for the composer first. On arriving at his home, I found him tinkering with one of its passages and said, “Mr. Copland, I notice you are playing forte and you have marked it piano in the score.” He turned to me grinning mischievously and said, “Ah, but that was 10 years ago!”

Some 200 years earlier, Chopin would have made a similar remark. Only he would have said, “but that was 10 seconds ago!” Julius Seligmann, president of the Glasgow Society of Musicians, attended a recital where the composer played his new “Mazurka in B flat, Opus 7 no. 1” as an encore. According to Seligmann, it met with such great success that Chopin decided to play it again, this time with such a radically different interpretation-tempos, colors and phrasing had all been changed-that it sounded like an entirely different piece. The audience was amazed when it finally realized he was playing the very same mazurka, and it rewarded him with a prolonged, vociferous ovation. It seems he had facetiously decided to show why he had no need to republish a score-the magic of interpretation would do it for him. He would often say, “I never play the same way twice.”

How thrilled I was in 1967, at the Château de Thoiry in France, when I accidentally discovered previously unknown versions of two Chopin waltzes, written in his own hand and dated 1833. Unbelievably, six years later I again accidentally found unknown versions of the very same two waltzes, this time at Yale University and dated 1832. Besides experiencing the drama of the discovery, I was excited to be privy to Chopin’s interpretive and creative process, ever-changing right up until the moment of publication.

Thinking is creativity’s worst enemy. When I first sight-read a score, everything seems so right, so natural. The notes seem to be playing themselves and the music flows. Why? Because I am not thinking. Inspiration has been my guide-the adventure of a first time. Then comes familiarization, the learning process where, until the piece is well in hand, thinking is allowed. After that, interpretation-choices must be made, but you are finally free to feel and use your creative instincts. And, at last, creation-how do I make the music sound as it did when I didn’t know it? The great poet Yeats spoke of this dilemma so beautifully in his poem “Adam’s Curse”:

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

Before the heart can remember, the mind must forget. And, when I least expect to, I will suddenly start playing that piece, again without thinking, as I did in the beginning when I first sight-read it. That is when it happens-I have finally discovered my “moment’s thought.”

Beauty is in the ear of the beholder, as well as the eye. I’m reminded of a story of the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who after playing a recital in Chicago confided to a friend that he had had an off night. “Well, tomorrow comes the bad news from Miss Cassidy,” he said. Claudia Cassidy, the Chicago Tribune’s music critic, was notorious for her sharp-tongued reviews. The next day he was stunned to read in her column that “Rubinstein never played better.” And with a somewhat bemused smile the pianist quipped, “Who am I to disagree with her?”

And who could disagree with Mozart saying, “Finally it comes down to a matter of taste”?

Reproduced with permission of the WSJ

More Than Mere Exercises

In Chopin’s 27 Études, technique and music become one


It was May of 1829 and Frederic Chopin was 19 when he went to hear the great Niccolo Paganini perform his first concert in Warsaw. He was called “a wizard, ” “the devil incarnate,” “super-human,” “a violinist without equal” wherever he performed. Chopin was mesmerized by his playing — Paganini’s technique was positively acrobatic. What could he, Chopin, compose for the piano á la Paganini, something different that would echo what he had just heard? A few months later, he wrote to his best friend, Titus Woyciechowski, that “I have written a big, technical exercise — in my own way.” Shortly afterward, he wrote again: “I have composed a few exercises. I would play them well for you if only you were here.”

These two études (Exercise 1 & 2, he called them) were the beginning of his 27 Études (“Studies” in English) that were to become the cornerstone of every gifted pianist’s repertoire. They are extremely difficult, and he must have been thinking of Paganini — or Liszt, “The Paganini of the Piano,” the only one Chopin felt capable of playing them. In any case, he dedicated the first 12 “to his friend Franz Liszt.” Later, on hearing Liszt play them, Chopin exclaimed, “I wish I could steal the secret from Liszt of how he plays my études!”


In “Exercise 1” an extra-large extension of the right hand is required to play the difficult, widely spaced arpeggios that race up and down the keyboard throughout. Chopin’s hand was small but extremely flexible, otherwise he could not have played this étude. Could his sleeping with wine corks between his fingers have helped his stretch? It could have, judging from my own finger-stretching devices (though not with wine corks!).

“Exercise 2” especially demonstrates his highly unorthodox but effective way of fingering, which he considered a vital aspect of piano playing. Chopin found that each finger produced a different color. “Don’t try to make all your fingers equal in strength. Each one has its own job to do.” Searching for ways to improve evenness and legato, he often crossed his longer fingers over each other, slid the same finger from one note to the other, crossed his thumb under his fifth finger — all sending shock waves among pianists, particularly as it did the trick! After hearing the first 12 études, the acerbic German critic Ludwig Rellstab gave a highly exaggerated but rather amusing account of their difficulty. “He who has sprained fingers will be able to straighten them out with these études,” Rellstab said, “but he who has healthy fingers should be careful not to play them until surgeons are nearby.” The pianist-composer Ignaz Moscheles thought differently: “He who has a small soul should not attempt to play these études.”

Chopin’s fascination with Paganini continued. In 1831, he attended every one of his 10 concerts in Paris. Paganini comes up again in 1834, when Mendelssohn writes his mother, “He [Chopin] produces new effects (pedaling for example) like Paganini on his violin and accomplishes wonderful passages such as no one could formerly have thought practical.”

The second 12 études were dedicated to Countess Marie d’Agoult, Liszt’s mistress — why still remains a bit of a mystery. They are even more beautiful musically and even more technically challenging. The last three studies, “Trois Nouvelles Études,” were commissioned by an 1840 publication, “Methods of Piano Playing.” For some reason, they seem to be performed less often.

In the 19th century, composers, pianists and teachers wrote exercises providing practice material for developing stronger techniques. Chopin’s approach was radical and revolutionary. He wrote his own extremely difficult “exercises” but then did something very different. He merged them with music only he could have written. Magically, the technique and music became one. Exercises could now be performed in public. Each étude has a specific, technical difficulty that continues from beginning to end without a moment’s respite. If practicing them over and over doesn’t increase your endurance, nothing will.

The word “legato,” used often by Chopin here, is regrettably a marking that is too rarely fully applied. It means the bonding of one note to the next, almost as if they were glued together. Its use is the best way to emulate the human voice and make a percussion instrument not only sing but “speak” — a unique perspective of Chopin’s.

In the famous “Revolutionary Étude,” Opus 10 No. 12, the left hand is marked “legatissimo,” extremely legato, which makes it sound like a musical partner to the passionate, right-hand theme, not just a mechanical accompaniment. Perhaps legato should always be marked legatissimo — it would get the pianist’s attention and then we might have a real legato!

Chopin resented his pieces being given names. “Let them dream what they want.” But publishers knew it increased sales, so every étude was named (not by Chopin): “Tristesse,” “Butterfly Étude,” “Winter Wind,” and so on. Chopin said about “Tristesse” (Sadness), “Never in my life could I again find such a beautiful theme.” Technically, the difficulty is to play both the theme and its accompaniment with one hand. It became so popular that it was made into a song, “So Deep Is the Night,” which can even now be heard on YouTube.

The highly original and experimental mind of Chopin gave birth to the “Black Key Étude” — where, for the first time, the right hand plays only on the black keys from beginning to end. Incredibly, with changing harmonies, he creates a theme despite all that virtuosity. The great violinist Jascha Heifetz, whom I had the good fortune of knowing very well, walked into the room where I was practicing this étude. He asked, “Would you just play the left-hand accompaniment?” I thought, “Is he going to try to play that very difficult right hand on the piano?” But, instead, out of his pocket came an orange, which he held in his right hand. “Ready?” He rolled the orange back and forth over the black keys, sounding almost like the real thing — almost! We were in hysterics. I thought, maybe this étude should now be called the “Orange Étude” — though I am not sure Chopin would have agreed.

Reproduced with permission of the WSJ

The Sounds of Music

Want a concert seat with good acoustics? So does the pianist
By Byron Janis
Published in The Wall Street Journal, January 27-28, 2007

Acoustics are rarely discussed from the concert pianists’ point of view, yet arguably it affects us the most. An audience member unhappy with the sound in their part of the auditorium can change seats, but we cannot.

Therefore the position of the piano on stage is of utmost importance — moving it only a foot in either direction can make an enormous difference in the sound and therefore in the performance.

As you are rehearsing on stage, you wonder why you have spent so much time at home fine tuning the pedaling, the dynamics, and the tempos when they will all need altering in this new acoustical environment. These last-minute adjustments remain one of the concert pianist’s major challenges. Whatever sound we hear on stage governs our performance and, one could almost say, becomes our “co-creator.” If we find the sound to be on the dry side, we will probably use more pedal to help add color. I will even sometimes try to quicken the tempo ever so slightly to ensure that the music has its proper flow. If the sound is too reverberant (overly resonant and losing clarity), the reverse would apply.

A different kind of problem presented itself with the building of Lincoln Center ‘s Avery Fisher Hall in 1962. The acousticians seemed to have been interested in a highly articulated, clear, brilliant treble sound. While that might suit much contemporary music, works of the classic, Romantic period of the 19th century require just the opposite — a blending of the notes and the addition of a much-needed bass sound, which provides the warmth and sense of harmony so crucial to music. Unfortunately Avery Fisher, which was redone several times, still needs improvement. There is talk now of yet another renovation.

The greatest concert halls we have — Symphony Hall in Boston, Carnegie Hall in New York and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, to name a few — combine clarity and brilliance without sacrificing warmth. It is interesting that all were built before 1901, prior to the availability of scientific instruments. Apparently, the human ear was (and for me still is) the best instrument of all.

Let me tell you just a few of my own adventures with music’s most unpredictable partner — acoustics:

In 1957, at a recording session at Orchestra Hall in Chicago , with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I wasn’t surprised when I did not hear enough piano sound during a brief rehearsal. Normally, when I had experienced that at rehearsals for concerts there, I was not worried, since I knew that I would have my “real” piano back with a filled auditorium. But in a recording session there is no public to change the acoustics — so I quickly had to find a way to get the sound I needed.

I had seen some sheets of plywood backstage and, knowing that wood was the best reflector of sound, I asked the stagehand to bring me some. One piece was close to perfect — it was about 15 inches wide (roughly the distance between the keyboard and the lid, an area which normally doesn’t need any sound reflector). When leaned against the left side of the piano near the keyboard, it rose a foot above the instrument. I sat down and played a few passages — it worked! It gave me the sound I needed. I have never forgotten that piece of plywood. It should have gotten credit on the recording!
When I was 10 years old, I played on an important radio program called “The Magic Key.” A celebrated soprano named Grace Moore was on the same program. During rehearsal, I saw her putting a cupped hand behind her ear. I remember thinking, “Wow, what a strange lady — what’s she doing?” Later I realized that she did this to amplify the sound of her voice, using her hand as a reflector. Not only can you hear your own voice better but the voices of others as well. Try this at a concert and you’ll have your own personal amplifier.
Vladimir Horowitz, the great pianist with whom I studied, told me how mystified he was when Maurice Ravel asked him to play a new piece, “Jeux d’Eau” (“The Fountain”), without using any pedals. Fortunately, it went unheeded; otherwise we would have heard a lot of “dry fountains”!

Some 30 years later when visiting Ravel’s home outside Paris , I had the opportunity to play his piano, and after only a few moments understood the puzzling “no pedal” request. Composers usually write for the conditions at hand. In his case, the piano was a Bechstein grand, and the room in which he wrote was small — about 12 by 24 feet. The sound was so excessively sonorous that no pedal was needed and, indeed, would have been detrimental. So the acoustics in Ravel’s room were the culprit responsible for the “dry fountain.”
In New York in the summer of 1957, I recorded Moussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” his major work for piano. Several days after finishing, I went to the studio to listen to the different takes. I happened to choose the ones for the final recording on a Friday. Returning to the studio on Monday I was shocked at what I heard. Everything sounded lifeless and heavy — too slow. I know we hear things differently on different days, but this was too much.

I asked the crew if they had heard the difference. To my relief, they had. They were as perplexed as I until one of the engineers cried out, “I know what the problem is — the air conditioner was turned off over the weekend and the speakers have been badly affected by the room’s heat and humidity.” There was no point in listening any further until the air conditioner could dry everything out. We enjoyed a purposefully long lunch before returning to the studio and to the tapes. As if by magic, the Friday performances were back! Shortly afterward, I was told that the air conditioners would have no more weekends off.

These are but a few examples of how capricious acoustics can be. And when we realize that even fur coats can affect the sound in a hall, you can see just how capricious.

So the next time you complain about the sound in a concert hall, pity the poor performers. Before a recital we must position the piano based on the acoustics of an empty hall, not a filled one. Hopefully, we make the right choice — no changing of seats for us!

Reproduced with permission of the Wall Street Journal

Romantic Virtuosity

Rachmaninoff’s face was immobile; his concertos are full of intense emotion

The unparalleled mastery of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) as a composer, pianist and conductor places him at the top of the so-called triple-crown artists. This achievement is seen in his four piano concertos, whose similarity of architecture, soaring, Slavic-tinged passion and sensuality, and exciting rhythmic passages are the common thread that weaves the four into one grand tableau.

Rachmaninoff’s First Concerto was started in 1890, when he was 17. By that time he had already begun sketching the most famous of all his concertos, the Second. He chose, however, to continue writing the first movement of the First Concerto, completing it in 1891 while still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. It was performed the following year and was well received (in the 19th century, playing one movement of a work was standard practice). After putting the First Concerto aside for almost a year, he rushed to finish it and told a friend that he had orchestrated the second and third movements in two days! Starting a work and not completing it until later was typical of him.

The First was performed in its entirety shortly thereafter with great success. A leading critic wrote, “There was not yet, of course, any individuality but there was taste, tension, youthful sincerity and obvious knowledge; already there is much promise.” It is a remarkable work both for its bravura and its rhythmic ingenuity, though, except for the lovely, nocturne-like theme of the second movement, the themes are of a somewhat lesser quality than those in his later concertos. The cadenza — where the orchestra is silent and the pianist becomes the lone performer “playing” with the previous themes in different keys and different rhythms — is striking for its surging lyricism and exploding virtuosity. The concerto was largely rewritten in 1917, becoming the version now performed. The extraordinary cadenza is the only part that remained unchanged.

After initially sketching the Second Concerto, it took Rachmaninoff 11 years to begin writing it. In the interim, he had composed and conducted an opera, “Aleko,” many songs, and his First Symphony — a failure. He once confessed to a friend, “I have no faith in myself. There is in the whole world no critic as doubtful of me than myself.” Having fallen into a deep depression, he was persuaded to consult with Dr. Nicolai Dahl, a hypnotherapist. While Rachmaninoff was in a hypnotic state, he was told again and again, “You are going to write a new, beautiful concerto.” And that is what he did.

The first performance of the second and third movements in 1900 met with enormous fanfare. The Second Concerto, dedicated to Dr. Dahl, was performed in its entirety a year later. The viola section in this score is more prominent than usual; could that be because the doctor was also an accomplished violist? This concerto is famous for its many memorably beautiful themes, some of which have become popular songs or been used as movie themes. “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” written by Ted Mossman and Buddy Kaye, was even recorded by Frank Sinatra.

The Second Concerto differs from his others in that Rachmaninoff made the piano and orchestra equal partners, unusual writing for a great pianist. Often, he has the orchestra playing the theme with the piano in the role of accompanist. Even the impassioned opening theme, which appears throughout the concerto, is played only by the orchestra. It is also the only time his writing for the piano was technically awkward. Rachmaninoff agreed that it was “uncomfortable to play.” He obviously had not yet regained his self-confidence and probably chose not to write a cadenza to avoid playing alone, unsupported.

The Third Concerto, written in his favorite key, D minor, is a pianist’s “tour de force” in which the piano always dominates. It is probably the most difficult work to play in the romantic-virtuoso repertoire. Composers usually write according to the range and dimension of their hands and, in the case of Rachmaninoff, they were unusually large. Ironically, he dedicated the towering Third to his favorite pianist, Josef Hoffman, who could never play it because of his small hands! Full of searing passion and sweeping grandeur, it is always extremely pianistic and makes the most difficult passages feel comfortable “in the hand.” While his immobile face conveyed none of what he was feeling inside, his intensely powerful emotions and exciting virtuosity are evident in all that he wrote.

The Third was written with America in mind — a big concerto for a big country — and was to have its premiere in 1909 with the New York Symphony Orchestra (in 1928 this orchestra merged with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York to become the New York Philharmonic), conducted by Walter Damrosch. In New York, Rachmaninoff as well as the orchestra had to play the concerto from the manuscript, as it had yet to be printed. It was a tremendous triumph but somehow did not immediately capture the attention of other pianists.

On meeting the great Vladimir Horowitz for the first time, Rachmaninoff declared, “I wrote this concerto for an elephant!” Horowitz seemed to be the “elephant” who lit the way for its future acclaim. The composer remarked that its beautiful opening theme “is borrowed neither from folk music nor from church sources; it simply wrote itself.”

Alas, the Fourth Concerto, completed in 1926, is not of the caliber of the other three. Rachmaninoff seems to have been writing from his head, not his heart. Despite some lovely moments and the last movement’s original writing, it fell far short of everyone’s expectations. Rachmaninoff revised the Fourth several times, but to no avail. This was a major blow to him, as he had not composed anything since 1916. After agonizing for months, he withdrew the Fourth from his repertoire. It remains the least played and recorded of his concertos.

Rachmaninoff’s first three concertos, however, deserve to be called masterpieces. They have withstood the test of time and set a standard by which all romantic-virtuoso concertos should be measured.

Reproduced with permission of the WSJ

A Pianist Reflects upon Chopin

Tuesday, February 28, 2006
By Byron Janis

“I write beautiful music to cover all of the ugliness in the world.”

So wrote the great Polish composer and pianist, Frederic Chopin. His traditionally given birth date is March l, but his baptismal records in Zelazowa Wola, the Polish village near Warsaw where he was born, show otherwise. He was actually born on Feb. 22. It was said that his parents’ reason for changing the date was none other than taxes.

What is it about the music of Chopin that its spectacular popularity has never waned? The great pianist/composer Franz Liszt was said to have often introduced him as “The man who comes from another planet.” Chopin’s music reflects that comment as there was nothing like it ever written before or since. Surprisingly, he never studied with a pianist, but with a violinist and a composer.

photo posted on post-gazette.comChopin was not only a great musician but also a great humorist. He loved playing practical jokes as well as finding humor in the mundane: “There is no need for me to shave the left side of my face when performing — the public won’t see it anyway!” His talent for the theater made such an impression on many who saw him that they said, “Why bother with the piano? You should become an actor.”

From childhood, I seem to have been drawn to Chopin — not only the composer, but also the man. Somehow, my life has been filled with many events pertaining to him.

Some 50 years ago I went with my first wife to visit Nohant, the French country house of George Sand, the famous writer and political activist. Chopin spent eight summers at Nohant as Sand’s lover, where he wrote some of his most beautiful music.

I had not known that Aurore, George Sand’s granddaughter, was still alive until a guide at the country house’s museum told me. My heart skipped two beats — I had to meet her. I wrote her a note and, giving the guide all my French francs, asked him to deliver it. I was soon told, “Madame Sand will see you for just five minutes.” The “five minutes” became four hours.

Aurore was brought up by her grandmother until age 11, when Sand died. After her death, she told me that she decided to completely dedicate her life to her grandmother’s memory.

“Chopin was an ingrate!” she told me. “My grandmother ran the house solely for him, disrupting all our lives, and yet when he left, there was never any communication from him, not even a letter.”

She also spoke of a dinner party attended by many great artists including Delacroix, Heine and Turgenev. At one point Sand turned to her daughter, Solange — “I saw you flirting with Chopin. If you’re so crazy about him, why don’t you marry him?” Whereupon Solange replied, “What? Marry that sick old invalid?”

There has been much conjecture about their true relationship and how far it went. I was told by Madame Ferra (the guardian of Chopin and Sand’s monastery rooms in Majorca) that she was told that Solange’s brother, Maurice, had confided to a friend, “All the way.”

When Aurore asked me to play for her, I could hardly contain my emotions — this was the same room in which Chopin had spent so many hours playing and composing his glorious music. I chose a nocturne, and after playing it she came to the piano and emotionally embraced me. This day at Nohant has remained one of the most magical days in my life.

Roger de Garate, a friend of Aurore’s and curator of the house in Nohant, became a close friend. Several years before he died he gave me one of the three original death masks of Chopin, a green corduroy dinner coat and a locket belonging to Aurore that held the combined hairs of both Chopin and Sand. No words could express my feelings. I treasure them always.

Six years ago I met Andrew Borey, the great-grandson of Chopin’s sister Louise, and we developed a rare friendship. In his mother’s house in Warsaw, it was known that she had one of Chopin’s pianos. When Alfred Cortot, the celebrated French pianist, came to visit, he “got down on his knees and kissed every one of the piano’s keys.”

Chopin often talked about other worlds. A letter in my possession written by Sand says, “He believes that he believes in some kind of fantastic and divine immortality. In fact, these were just the waves of his genius.”

It seemed the “earth” of Sand was living with the “heaven” of Chopin. He had suffered from tuberculosis half of his life but, upon his death on Oct. 17, 1849, his autopsy revealed that this was not the cause of death. His close friends all agreed — he died of a broken heart.