Fun To Do The Impossible, Albert Einstein

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