Are Pianists Born or Made?

Are pianists born or made? The following article is part of the book (chapters 10 & 11) "Great Pianists on Piano Playing" by James Francis Cooke. The last reprint of its edition dates back to 1917, thus making it a "Public Domain" book. I have found it extremely valuable, as it refers (with real interviews) to many famous pianists-the kind of we hardly find anymore. The book is now part of the Gutemberg Project but as I found out, one has to still pay a monthly subscription to download it! This book is a gem: so, I am uploading all of its chapters here, so that you can read and enjoy them with no financial obligations!


Some years ago the Director of the Leipsic Conservatorium gave the writer a complete record of the number of graduates of the conservatory from the founding to the late nineties. Of the thousands of students who had passed through the institution only a few had gained wide prominence. Hardly one student in one hundred had won his way into the most voluminous of the musical biographical dictionaries. The proportion of distinguished graduates to those who fail to gain renown is very high at Leipsic compared with many other institutions. What becomes of the thousands of students all working frantically with the hope of becoming famous pianists? Surely, so much earnest effort can not be wasted even though all can not win the race? Those who often convince themselves that they have failed go on to perform a more useful service to society than the laurel-crowned virtuoso. Unheralded and unapplauded, they become the teachers, the true missionaries of Frau Musik to the people.

What is it then, which promotes a few “fortunate” ones from the armies of students all over America and Europe and makes of them great virtuosos? What must one do to become a virtuoso? How long must one study before one may make a début? What does a great virtuoso receive for his performances? How long does the virtuoso practice each day? What exercises does he use? All these and many more similar questions crop up regularly in the offices of music critics and in the studios of teachers. Unfortunately, a definite answer can be given to none, although a great deal may be learned by reviewing some of the experiences of one who became great.Some virtuosos actually seem to be born with the heavenly gift. Many indeed are sons and daughters of parents who see their own demolished dreams realized in the triumphs of their children. When little Nathan creeps to the piano and quite without the help of his elders picks out the song he has heard his mother sing, all the neighbours in Odessa know it the next day. “A wonder child perhaps!” Oh happy augury of fame and fortune! Little Nathan shall have the best of instruction. His mother will teach him at first, of course. She will shape his little fingers to the keyboard. She will sing sweet folk melodies in his ear, songs of labor, struggle, exile. She will count laboriously day after day until he “plays in time.” All the while the little mother sees far beyond the Ghetto, out into the great world, grand auditoriums, breathless crowds, countless lights, nobles granting trinkets, bravos from a thousand throats, Nathan surrounded by endless wreaths of laurel,— Oh, it is all too much,—“Nathan! Nathan! you are playing far too fast. One, two, three, four,—one, two, three, four,— there, that is the tempo Clementi would have had it. Fine! Some day, Nathan, you will be a great pianist and—” etc., etc.

Nathan next goes to the great teacher. He is already eight years old and fairly leaping out of his mother’s arms. Two years with the teacher and Nathan is probably ready for a début as a wonder child. The critics are kind. If his parents are very poor Nathan may go from town to town for awhile being exhibited like a trained poodle or a tiny acrobat. The further he gets from home the more severe his critics become, and Nathan and his mother hurry back to the old teachers, who tell them that Nathan must still practice long and hard as well as do something to build up his general education. The world in these days looks askance at the musician who aside from his keyboard accomplishments is a numskull. More sacrifice for Nathan’s mother and father, but what are poverty and deprivation with such a goal in sight? Nathan studies for some years in the schools and in the high schools as well as at the conservatory. In the music school he will doubtless spend six years in all, two years in the post-graduate or master classes, following the regular four-year course. When sufficiently capable he will take a few pupils at a kopeck or so per lesson to help out with the family expenses.

Nathan graduates from the conservatory with high honors. Will the public now receive him as a great pianist? A concert is planned and Nathan plays. Day and night for years his whole family have been looking forward to that concert. Let us concede that the concert is a triumph. Does he find fame and fortune waiting for him next morning? No indeed, there are a thousand Nathans all equally accomplished. Again he must work and again he must con- certize. Perhaps after years of strife a manager may approach him some day with a contract. Lucky Nathan, have you not a thousand brothers who may never see a contract? Then,—“Can it be possible Nathan,—is it really America,—America the virtuoso’s Golconda!” Nathan makes a glorious tournée. Perhaps the little mother goes with him. More likely she stays at home in Odessa waiting with glistening eyes for each incoming mail. Pupils come to Nathan and he charges for each lesson a sum equaling his father’s former weekly wage. Away with the Ghetto! Away with poverty! Away with oblivion! Nathan is a real virtuoso,—a veritable Meister !

Are Pianists Born or Made?

The American Virtuoso of Today

How does the American aspirant compete with Nathan? Are there not as fine teachers here in America as in Europe? Is it really necessary to go to Europe to “finish” one’s musical education? Can one not become a virtuoso in America?—more questions with which editors and teachers are constantly plied. Can one who for years has waged a battle for the American teacher and American musical education answer this question without bias? Can we who trace the roots of our lineage back to barren Plymouth or stolid New Netherland judge the question fairly and honestly? One case suffices to show the road which the American virtuoso is likely to travel. She is still a young woman, in her twenties. Among her teachers was one who ranks among the very best in America. Her general education was excellent,—in fact far superior to that of the average young lady of good family in continental Europe. While in her early teens she became the leading feature at conservatory concerts. Her teacher won many a profitable pupil through her brilliant playing. She studies, as do so many American pupils, without making a regular business of it. Compared with the six year all day, week in and week out course which Nathan pursued in Odessa our little compatriot was at a decided disadvantage. But who ever heard of a music student making a regular business of learning the profession as would a doctor or a lawyer? Have not students contented themselves with two lessons a week since time immemorial? Need we go further to discover one of the flaws in our own educational system,—a flaw that is not due to the teacher or to the methods of instruction, but rather to our time-old custom. Two lessons a week are adequate for the student who does not aspire to become a professional, but altogether insufficient for the student who must accomplish a vast amount of work in a comparatively small number of years. She requires constant advice, regular daily instruc- tion and careful attention under experienced instructors. Teachers are not to be blamed if she does not receive this kind of attention, as there are abundant opportunities now in America to receive systematic training under teachers as thorough, as able and as inspiring as may be found in Europe. The excuse that the expense is greater in America falls when we learn the very high prices charged by leading teachers in Germany, Austria and France.

To go back to our particular case, the young lady is informed at the end of a course of two or three lessons a week during two or three years, that she is a full-fledged virtuoso and may now enter the concert field to compete with Carreño, Bloomfield-Zeisler or Goodson. Her playing is obviously superior to that of her contemporary students. Someone insists upon a short course of study abroad,—not because it is necessary, but because it might add to her reputation and make her first flights in the American concert field more spectacular. Accordingly she goes to Europe, only to find that she is literally surrounded by budding virtuosos,—an army of Nathans, any one of whom might easily eclipse her. Against her personal charm, her new-world vigor, her Yankee smartness, Nathan places his years of systematic training, his soul saturated in the music and art of past centuries of European endeavor and perhaps his youth of poverty which makes success imperative. The young lady’s European teacher frankly tells her that while her playing is delightful for the salon or parlor she will never do for the great concert hall. She must learn to play with more power, more virility, more character. Accordingly he sets her at work along special muscle-building, tone-cultivating, speed-making lines of technic in order to make up for the lack of the training which the young lady might easily have had at home had her parents been schooled to systematic daily study as a necessity.

Her first technical exercises with the new teacher are so simple that the young woman is on the verge of despair until she realizes that her playing is really taking on a new and more mature character. She has been lifting fifty pound weights occasion- ally. Her teacher is training her to lift one hundred pound weights every day. She has been sketching in pastels,— her teacher is now teaching her how to make Velasquez-like strokes in oils. Her gain is not a mere matter of loudness. She could play quite as loud before she went to Europe. There is something mature in this new style of playing, something that resembles the playing of the other virtuosos she has heard. Who is the great European master who is working such great wonders for her? None other than a celebrated teacher who taught for years in America,—a master no better than dozens of others in America right now. Can the teachers in America be blamed if the parents and the pupils fail to make as serious and continued an effort here? Atmosphere,—bosh! Work, long, hard and unrelenting,— that is the salvation of the student who would become a virtuoso. With our increasing wealth and advancing culture American parents are beginning to discover that given the same work and the same amount of instruction musical education in America differs very slightly from musical education abroad.

But we are deserting our young virtuoso most ungallantly. In Berlin she hears so many concerts and recitals, so many different styles of playing, that she begins to think for herself and her sense of artistic discrimination—interpretation, if you will—becomes more and more acute. Provided with funds for attending concerts, she does regularly, whereas in America she neglected opportunities equally good. She never realized before that there could be so much to a Brahms Intermezzo or a Chopin Ballade. At the end of her first year her American common sense tells her that a plunge into the concert field is still dangerous. Accordingly she remains two, or possibly three, more years and at the end if she has worked hard she is convinced that with proper management she may stand some chance of winning that fickle treasure, public favor.

“But,” persists the reader, “it would have been possible for her to have accomplished the same work at home in America.” Most certainly, if she had had any one of the hundred or more virtuoso teachers now resident in the United States all of whom are capable of bringing a highly talented pupil to virtuoso heights,—and if in their teaching they had exerted sufficient will power to demand from the pupil and the pupil’s parents the same conditions which would govern the work of the same pupil studying in Europe. Through long tradition and by means of endless experiences the conditions have been established in Europe. The student who aspires to become a professional is given a distinctively professional course. In America the need for such a training is but scantily appreciated. Only a very few of us are able to appraise the real importance of music in the advancement of human civilization, nor is this unusual, since most of us have but to go back but a very few generations to encounter our blessed Puritan and Quaker ancestors to whom all music, barring the lugubrious Psalm singing, was the inspiration of the devil. The teachers, as has been said before, are fully ready and more than anxious to give the kind of training required. Very frequently parents are themselves to blame for the slender dilettante style of playing which their well instructed children present. They measure the needs of the concert hall by the dimensions of the parlor. The teacher of the would-be professional pupil aspires to produce a quantity of tone that will fill an auditorium seating at least one thousand people. The pupil at home is enjoined not to “bang” or “pound.” The result is a feeble, characterless tone which rarely fills an auditorium as it should. The actor can not forever re- hearse in whispers if he is to fill a huge theater, and the concert pianist must have a strong, sure, resilient touch in order to bring about climaxes and make the range of his dynamic power all comprehensive. Indeed, the separation from home ties, or shall we call them home interferences, is often more responsible for the results achieved abroad than superior instruction.

Unfortunately, the number of virtuosos who have been taught exclusively in America is really very small. It is not a question of ability upon the part of the teacher or talent upon the part of the pupil. It is entirely a matter of the attitudes of the teacher, the pupil and the pupil’s home advisers. Success demands strong willed discipline and the most lofty standards imaginable. Teachers who have taught for years in America have returned to Europe, doubled and quadrupled their fees, and, under old-world surroundings and with more rigid standards of artistic work, have produced results they declare would have been impossible in America. The author contends that these results would have been readily forthcoming if we in America assumed the same earnest, persistent attitude toward the work itself. If these words do no more than reach the eyes of some of those who are advising students wrongly in this matter they will not have been written in vain. The European concert triumphs of Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, whose training was received wholly in the United States, is an indication of what may be achieved in America if the right course is pursued. Conditions are changing rapidly in our country, particularly in the wonderful West and Middle-West. It seems likely that many pianists without foreign instruction of any kind will have as great success in our concert field as have many of our best opera singers who have never had a lesson “on the other side.”

Our little pianist has again been playing truant from our manuscript. Let us see what happens to her when she finished her work with the famous teacher abroad. Surely the making of a virtuoso is an expensive matter. Let us take the estimate of the young pianist’s father, who practically mortgaged his financial existence to give his daughter the right musical training. Lessons with first teacher at $1.00 a lesson. Eighty lessons a year for four years $240.00. Lessons with second American teacher for two years at $2.00 a lesson 320.00. Lessons with third American teacher at $4.00 a lesson for one year and six months 480.00 Music, books, etc. 160.00

Piano $750.00
Maintenance for eight years at $200.00 a year (minimum estimate) $1600.00. Four years in Europe, travel, board, instruction, advertising, 
etc. $6000.00
TOTAL $9550.00. But the expense has only begun, if you please. The harvest is still a long way off. According to the fine traditions established by the late P. T. Barnum, there must be a European furore to precede the American advent of the musical star. The journalistic astronomers must point their telescopes long and steadily at the European firmament and proclaim their discovery in the columns of their papers. Again, furores are expensive. One must hire an auditorium, hire an orchestra, and, according to some very frank and disgusted young virtuosos who have failed to succeed, hire a critic or so like the amusing Trotter in 
Fanny’s First Play. What with three and four concerts a night why should not the critics have a pourboire for extra critical attention? Fortunately the best papers hold their criticisms above price. Bought criticisms are very rare, and if the young pianist or any representative approaches certain critics with any such suggestion, she may count upon faring very badly in cold type on the following day.

If Miss Virtuoso makes a success, her press notices are sent to her American concert managers, who purchase space in some American musical newspapers and reprint these no- tices. Publicity of this kind is legitimate, as the American public knows that in most cases these press notices are reprinted solely as advertising. It is simply the commercial process of “acquainting the trade” and if done right may prove one of the most fortunate investments for the young artist. Do not imagine, however, that the pianist’s American manager speculates in the problematical success of the coming virtuoso. On the contrary, his fee for putting the artist on his “list” and promoting her interests may range from five hundred dollars to two thousand dollars in advance. After that the manager usually requires a commission on all engagements “booked.” Graft? Spoils? Plunder? Not a bit of it. If the manager is a good one—that is, if he is an upright business man well schooled in his work— the investment should prove a good one. Exploiting a new artist is a matter demanding brains, energy, ingenuity and experience. A manufacturing firm attempting to put some new product upon an already crowded market would spend not $2000.00 a year in advertising, but $100,000.00. The manager must maintain an organization, he must travel, he must advertise and he too must live. If he succeeds in marketing the services of the young virtuoso at one or two hundred dollars a concert, the returns soon begin to overtake the incessant expenses. However, only the most persistent and talented artists survive to reap these rewards. The late Henry Wolfsohn, one of the greatest managers America has ever produced, told the writer frequently that the task of introducing a new artist was one of the most thankless and uncertain undertakings imaginable. 

Does the work, the time, the expense frighten you, little miss at the keyboard? Do you fear the grind, the grueling disappoints, the unceasing sacrifices? Then abandon your great career and join the army of useful music workers who are teaching the young people of the land to love music as it should be loved,—not in hysterical outbursts in the concert hall but in the home circle. If you have the unextinguishable fire within your soul, if you have the talent from on high, if you have health, energy, system, vitality, nothing can stop you from becoming great. Advice, interferences, obstacles will be nothing to you. You will work day and night to reach your goal. What better guide could you possibly have than the words of the great pianists themselves? While the ensuing pages were compiled with the view of helping the amateur performer quite as much as the student who would become a professional pianist, you will nevertheless find in the expressions of the really great virtuosos a wealth of information and practical advice. Most of the following chapters are the results of many different conferences with the greatest living pianists. All have had the revision of the artists in person before publication was undertaken. In order to indicate how carefully and willingly this was done by the pianists it is interesting to note the case of the great Russian composer-virtuoso Rachmaninoff. The original conference was conducted in German and in French. The material was arranged in manuscript form in English. M. Rachmaninoff then requested a second conference. In the mean time he had had the better part of the manuscript translated into his native Russian. However, in order to insure accuracy in the use of words, the writer translated the entire matter back into German in the pianist’s presence. M. Rachmaninoff did not speak English and the writer did not speak Russian.

The chapter relating to Harold Bauer is the result of a conference conducted in English. Mr. Bauer’s use of his native tongue is as fluent and eloquent as a poet or an orator. In order that his ideas might have the best possible expression the entire chapter was written several times in manuscript and carefully rearranged and rephrased by Mr. Bauer in person. Some of the conferences lasted well on through the night. The writer’s twenty years’ experience in teaching was constantly needed to grasp different shadings of meaning that some pianists found difficult to phrase. Many indeed have felt their weakness in the art of verbal expression and have rejoiced to have their ideas clothed with fitting words. Complete frankness and sincerity were encouraged in every case. The results of the conference with Wilhelm Bachaus, conceded by many other pianists to be the foremost “technicalist” of the day, are, it will be observed, altogether different in the statement of teaching principles from those of Harold Bauer. Each is a sincere expression of individual opinion and the thoughtful student by weighing the ideas of both may reach conclusions immensely to his personal advantage. 

No wider range of views upon the subject of pianoforte playing could possibly come between the covers of a book. The student, the teacher, and the music lover who acquaints himself with the opinions of the different masters of the keyboard can not fail to have a very clear insight into the best contemporary ideas upon technic, interpretation, style and expression. The author—or shall he call himself a collector?—believes that the use of the questions following each chapter will be found practical and useful in the work of both clubs and classes. Practice, however, is still more important than precept. The student might easily learn this book “by heart” and yet be unable to play a perfect scale. Let him remember the words of Locke:

“Men of much reading are greatly learned: but may be little knowing.”After all, the virtuoso is great because he really knows and W-O-R-K-S.


Study Talks with Foremost Virtuosos


A Series of Personal Educational Conferences with Renowned Masters

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