Carnegie Mellon University

School of Music

Where artistry and innovation share center stage

Pianist Byron Janis

December 30, 2022

Legendary Pianist Byron Janis Gives Masterclass

By Dan Fernandez

Dan Fernandez

Renowned pianist Byron Janis, a native of McKeesport, PA, gave a virtual masterclass to three piano students at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Music earlier this month.

Mr. Janis, who studied with Vladimir Horowitz, has had a long and storied career spanning nearly 80 years, during which he has made dozens of commercial recordings of the major piano concertos, and performed around the world as both musician and cultural ambassador. He debuted on the stage at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1948, and participated in cultural exchanges between the United States, the Soviet Union and Cuba in 1960. He was then the first American pianist in decades to be asked to return to Cuba to perform in 2000.

During the masterclass, the three Music students each performed a selection from their prepared repertoire, and were then critiqued by Mr. Janis, who provided instant feedback and suggestions for improving their technique and performance while working through various sections of each piece.

“I want feeling behind that,” Mr. Janis exhorted one of the students during the lesson. “You’re telling a story here. Go ahead, try that again.”

The lesson was conducted with live performances by Venkatesh Sivaraman, Wenrui Qu and Larsen Vincent in Kresge Theatre in the College of Fine Arts, which was open to the public. The students, who study with CMU professors Sergey Schepkin and Frederic Chiu, played works by Frédéric Chopin and Sergei Prokofiev. At the same time, Mr. Janis was on a live Zoom link from his home in New York City. Mr. Janis gave detailed, technical instruction which the pianists were also able to respond to in real time.

Mr. Janis compared the shaping of musical phrases on the piano to what vocalists experience. “Chopin used to say ‘You’re not a pianist, you’re a singer,’” Mr. Janis related. “At the opera a phrase is covered by the breath. We at the piano can play forever, we don’t have a breathing problem. But in that breathing problem are the beautiful makings of a phrase.”

Larsen Vincent, a sophomore student working towards a bachelor of science and arts degree in physics and piano performance, was honored by the experience. “I have been encouraged to develop my artistry as a musician by focusing on the emotional reaction I wish to elicit, then taking technical measures to attain it,” Vincent said. “Maestro Janis told me that my job as a pianist is to be a singer, breathing and living within the music. He reassured me about taking risks with my interpretation, saying that the abnormal is just the undiscovered normal.”

The masterclass took took place on Sunday, December 4, 2022 and was free and open to the general public.