Janina Fialkowska: 7 important lessons I've learned from my life in classical music

From tips on practising to relationship advice, the celebrated pianist shares some invaluable wisdom.

From tips on practising to relationship advice, the celebrated pianist shares some invaluable wisdom

Janina Fialkowska's latest album, Les sons et les parfums, was released in August 2019 on ATMA Classique. (Julien Faugère)

The life of Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska has been an immersion in classical music.

Born to a mother who had been a student in the class of Alfred Cortot in Paris, Fialkowska began piano lessons at the age of four, and at 12 made her debut as a soloist with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Studies in Paris and New York City ensued, and then, in 1974, following success at the inaugural Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv, she was taken under the wing of Rubinstein himself, who declared her to be "a born Chopin interpreter" and launched her international career.

Janina Fialkowska | Frédéric Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52 | CBC Music

2 years ago
Duration 10:15
Janina Fialkowska performs Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52, for CBC Music. 10:15

Of course, Chopin has figured prominently in Fialkowska's life as a performer and recording artist. Volume 2 of her Chopin Recital series on ATMA Classique won BBC Music Magazine's award for best instrumental album of 2012 — especially remarkable because she recorded it after recovering from surgery to remove a malignant tumour in her left arm.

Fialkowska has lived through and overcome a lot in her 68 years. And she's still going strong with a wonderful new album of French music (Les sons et les parfums), not to mention an upcoming concert tour through Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan. (View her concert schedule here.)

Ahead of her induction into CBC Music's In Concert Hall of Fame on Jan. 26, Fialkowska agreed to share seven important lessons she has learned from her life in classical music. Read about them below, in her own words.

1. Finding —and sticking with — the right teacher is key

"I only realised how lucky I was in this regard when I started getting involved with the lives of young pianists, giving masterclasses and judging competitions.

"Of course, as a child, it is impossible to choose your teacher yourself as it is basically up to one's parents or who just happens to be living nearby. But later on, it is of vital importance to find someone who has great knowledge and experience, but who is also able to communicate well, who has a fairly open mind and to whom one feels a strong connection, if not affection.

"What I have noticed more and more in recent years is this desperate rushing from teacher to teacher that so many young pianists are doing, trying to cover all bases but also, and more cynically, to play for as many potential jurors of international competitions as possible. The result being a huge amount of mostly talented youngsters who play very well but who have no real personalities and who all sound the same.

"In my case, I was for my first 19 years firmly entrenched in the French Cortot school, first with a pupil of Cortot in Montreal (Yvonne Hubert) and then with another pupil of Cortot's in Paris (Yvonne Lefebure). Only then did I switch to the Russian School and Sascha Gorodnitzki at the Juilliard School and, overlapping with Mr. Gorodnitzki, I then met Arthur Rubinstein and was strongly influenced by him during the last few years of his life.

"Whatever my faults and weaknesses — and they are many — my playing does have a very recognisable, individual sound thanks to a few, very wonderful influences."

Janina Fialkowska | Frédéric Chopin: Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61 | CBC Music

2 years ago
Duration 12:02
Janina Fialkowska performs Chopin's Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat Major, Op. 61, for CBC Music. 12:02

2. It's important to stand on your own 2 feet and cultivate your intellect

"Know when to stop taking lessons and stand on your own two feet. To continue into one's late 20s and 30s still taking lessons is totally counterproductive. Quite frankly, the very best pianists of the past all had only one teacher or possibly two and all managed without any lessons starting in their late teen years. And, interestingly, most of these legends of the past were thoroughly cultivated people with interests in other forms of music, literature and other forms of art.

"I can honestly say that some of my happiest moments as a student were when I discovered Marcel Proust and James Joyce and Thomas Mann and the great Russian authors, or when I stood at the back of the Met in New York and attended dozens of operas, or when I discovered Mahler and Wagner. I despair when I see that so many young pianists nowadays have, for example, no interest in reading. To play French piano music, for instance, without a knowledge of French literature seems impossible to me."

3. When it comes to practising, quality trumps quantity

"Chopin told his students that three hours a day was quite sufficient and he was right. Younger pianists with more energy may and probably should naturally work longer hours simply to learn a lot of notes and assemble a big repertoire. But when one is perfecting one's pieces, the concentration must be extreme and certainly can't be maintained for more than three or four hours.

"For me, there is nothing worse than practising by rote, without thinking, the way so many little children are taught these days — hours and hours of finger-moving. This promotes a very boring, one-dimensional sound and unimaginative interpretations."

4. It's not advisable to risk an under-prepared performance

"Here, one has to be very clever and strike a balance and this is not always easy as there is the constant worry for the young as well as the older pianists of making enough money to survive. However, in a perfect world, I have learned that it is never advisable to accept concerts unless one can be as completely prepared as possible. A slipshod concert due to lack of preparation undermines one's whole musical being and is extremely unprofessional. It is unforgivable and, quite frankly, one never knows who can be sitting in the audience.

"Early on, I learned from my teachers and mostly from Rubinstein that one should take the same care when one plays for just five people in a tiny village, as one would for an audience of thousands in a major capital city. Believe me, if one doesn't follow this philosophy, one misses out on a lot of joy."

5. Happiness lies in finding and playing the music that suits you best

"As a young musician, it is important to try out a lot of different kinds of music, but by one's mid-20s one should have a fair idea of what suits and what doesn't. I spent years playing a certain repertoire which I didn't much like but which I was asked to play by presenters. This can be soul-destroying.

"I eventually learned not to accept such invitations and only play what I understood and what I believed were my pianistic strengths. Over the years, due to illness and age, I have had to adapt a bit, but my public can now be sure that I only play what I love and what I understand on an instinctive as well as well thought-out level; repertoire that I want to share with them."

Janina Fialkowska | Edvard Grieg: Notturno, Op. 54, No. 4 | CBC Music

2 years ago
Duration 3:48
Janina Fialkowska performs Edvard Grieg's Notturno, Op.54, No. 4 for CBC Music. 3:48

6. Finding the right partner is possible

"For years I thought, as a woman performer, that it would be impossible to find a partner whose whole life wouldn't be overshadowed by my career, but who would be sympathetic and supportive. Being a concert pianist can be a very selfish thing and this is understandable considering the amazing stress involved.

"However, long after I had resigned myself to singlehood, along came Harry [Oesterle] out of the blue and we have now been happily married for 20 years. He definitely is an immense source of strength and help to me, but he also follows a very definite path of his own as well. So, I do think it is possible — one just has to be patient, picky and very lucky."

7. To control your nerves, you must first understand what motivates you

"I'm afraid if one is a nervous person to begin with, it doesn't get any better with age. In fact, it gets worse. The only thing that can help is if one understands one's motivation. My motivation to play the piano has changed over the years: from sibling rivalry as a small child, to wanting to please my mother, to wanting to please my teachers, to thoroughly enjoying the gymnastic aspects of performing, to falling desperately in love with music in my early teens.

"It was an episode in London, England, after a Schumann concerto I played in Festival Hall, that sorted me out somewhat. I was in a taxi going to the reception and there was a very nice lady travelling with me. She was my manager's new girlfriend and I politely asked her what she did professionally. She said she was a surgeon at a children's hospital. I was very impressed and told her how wonderful I thought she was and what a worthy profession and how I wished I could do something so amazing. Without the slightest pause she answered, "Why do you think I work so hard to save these children? I may give them life, but people like you provide the quality in their lives."

"I chose to believe her and, although I am still a basket case before most concerts, I at least now know why I put up with it! So, I think of my audience and I try to share all this wonderful music with them as best I can."