Wall Street Journal

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.