Monday, May 30, 2011

Passion, Individuality, Perseverance: Byron Janis Discusses Performance and Living with Arthritis

“Music for me was indeed the closest thing to a feeling of God, an unspoken reverie to and from beyond.  To lose music to me was like losing my most intimate contact with Him.  “Believing” was not the issue, but if I could no longer play, what then?” - Byron Janis, Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life Through Music and the Paranormal (J.Wiley, 2010)
Last week I was fortunate to spend an afternoon with Byron Janis and Maria Cooper Janis while they were visiting Washington, DC.  We sat down and had a good, long chat about arthritis and perseverance which you should read at MyRACentral.

In the 2.5 hours I spent with the Janises, we talked about more than arthritis and Byron’s memoirs, which are included in the new book Chopin and Beyond which was coauthored by Maria Cooper Janis.  We talked about music, performance, and the passion which lies within each of us.

One of the last questions I asked Byron was related to his becoming a musician all his own.  I asked, ‘Having studied with Vladimir Horowitz at such a young age, how long do you think it took for you to solidly establish your own sense of style and uniqueness as a performer?’

Byron: “Very good question.  You know, Horowitz’s heart was in the right place.  He would say, ‘You don’t want to become a second Horowitz.  You want to be a first Janis.’  I’d say, yes, that’s true. But how do you do that?

It’s hard. You have to be strong, or strong-minded, and know that your mind is your mind.  And what helped me too was that I was never in awe of the person.  I played for Toscanini.  I wasn’t in awe of him, I was in awe of his extraordinary talent which was unbelievable.  So that helped me.

I grew up around Heifetz, Horowitz, and Toscanini.  I think that’s pretty good.  I had my own standards which were pretty high because of what I saw and heard.  But it did take me about five years [to become] what I really want and what I felt completely, and managed to discard that which wasn’t me or which was habit.”

I also asked, ‘How much time did you spend listening to other performers or recordings?’

Byron: “Well, not a lot.  Because again, Horowitz said something which was very good. ‘Why do people listen to recordings?  If you are going to listen to a recording, listen to TEN recordings of the same piece.  You will see that they are all different and yours has to be different.’  But yours has to be NOT different, as some try to be original [ed: or contrived] which is too bad.  But the hardest thing in the world is to be natural.

It’s the hardest thing in the world to play naturally.  You have something to say, which is your own.  And I always was frightened that Horowitz was, well he could be very mannered and whatever on stage.  I was always frightened that being natural was boring, you see.  Not at all, not when you have a talent.  If you are natural.”

When discussing teaching, Byron pointed out that “we can’t teach expression.  Sure we can teach fundamentals and technique, but we can’t teach someone how to feel.”  The following excerpt comes from an article, In Praise of Infidelity, which Byron Janis wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2010.  I find the description of the creative process to be enlightening.
Thinking is creativity’s worst enemy.  When I 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 the 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.”
(Back to Thursday’s chat.)

Byron: “In talking to children, I talk to them as I would talk to an adult.  I think they perfectly understand, and they do.  Don’t they?  I mean they understand terribly well things that I was telling them.  They understood it very well.  I think they appreciate the fact that you talk to them as anybody else and not talk down to them.

And the other thing I always say is this.  Anybody who loses the child in him has a less interesting, pitiful life.  Because all the great artists I’ve known - I’ve known Picasso, painters, all kinds of people - they are children.  They grow up, mature, whatever.  But the child remains.”

Keeping the child inside of us alive is vital to living a victorious life.  Not something which I’ve thought too much about previously, but will from now on.

Janis had just came from Pittsburgh where he spoke to a group of children living with severe physical or learning disabilities at the children’s hospital.  He told the children, “There is a job for each one of us, no matter what our condition, just something we can do, that nobody else will do, as we do it.  I keep telling them, almost nothing is impossible.  You’re going to find something that you love and that you will be able to do.”

In a related story Byron continues: “Something that Chopin said, which was really fascinating and wonderful not only for pianists but for life.  ‘Don’t try to make your fingers equal in strength  Each one has it’s own job to do.’  And that’s so true. We’re not equal, really.  I wish we would all realize it.”

“What’s important, certainly with artists, is to keep our vulnerability.  Sure, you are going to get hurt.  In life, in love, in this and that.  But that’s life.  Sometimes I think we’re put here to learn how to handle adversity.  So many people, we all, have adversity.  How we handle it is key to what our life will be.  I really think that.  I learned how to handle adversity.  Moments were very difficult, I’ll repeat.  And I almost succumbed, but I didn’t.”
“It had not been the applause that kept me going, nor had it been the press when it was glowing.  It was my passion, my ability to never stop persevering, and the feeling of creating beauty that was necessary for my soul to exist.” - Byron Janis, Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life Through Music and the Paranormal (J. Wiley, 2010)
More information regarding Byron’s autobiography, the PBS documentary The Byron Janis Story, articles and public appearances is available at

Postscript: Any discussion of the paranormal seems to invoke strong reactions from those who believe and those who are skeptical.  I had fabulous discussions of what the term "paranormal" means to Byron and Maria Janis.

It's not just about bending spoons.  It's about the vast majority of the  universe which Einstein said we do not yet know nor understand.  It's about the power of the mind to overcome adversity.  It's about the unknown and discoveries yet to be made.  It's about science and research to find cures.  It's about synchronicity.  Honestly, the discussion we had could fill up an entire other interview.


  1. What a delightful post. I honestly learned a few life lessons here Lisa. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Nicole. It's nice to hear and I know that Byron and Maria Janis have read your response. :) I am still thinking of everything I heard and learned last Thursday.

  3. Great post.

    Of course I always like interviews where those interviewed reinforce my firm belief that it is all about the child in me!


  4. something about artists that is so natural and real... true emotion that is felt always...

    i was once surrounded by musicians and artists and it is truly a gift to live among them...

    Janis has given so much good and wonderful advice... living with feeling, becoming natural, not losing the child inside... a shame more don't have those same principals on life!

    thanks for sharing your time spent with these folks... i greatly enjoyed it...

    and Janis is an amazing artist!

  5. It sounds like you had a wonderful conversation - what a treat it must have been! Thanks for sharing some of his wisdom and insights with us.