Byron Janis on Overcoming Adversity

Imagine this.

You are an 11-year-old boy who is already an established prodigy at the piano, and you have an accident with your little finger and a glass door. Your finger is shredded, and losing a tendon and nerve in the surgery, and not being able to feel anything in the finger, you are told by the doctor to think of doing something else with your life than continue with piano.

What do you do?

If you are Byron Janis, you decide to pursue your passion, finding ways to work around the defective finger, using other fingers and using your vision to monitor what the little finger is doing. The world doesn’t even know about your difficulty until you tell them after another sixty years.

Today, I was privileged to hear Byron Janis speak today and perform a few pieces at the piano at a convocation at Carnegie Mellon University.

Byron Janis speaking

Byron Janis playing piano

Janis spoke of overcoming not only the problem with his finger, but also the psoriatic arthritis he developed later. At a low point in his life, he ended up beginning to compose, and finding meaning in music through that avenue. “Passion and perseverance!” he repeated again and again.

I liked how down-to-earth he was in his talk. He grew up in Pittsburgh, after all: he’s one of ours!

Why his talk touched me

For a long time in my life, I was a musical dilettante, unwilling to put in the truly focused, disciplined effort to play an instrument well (I piddled around with flute and piano). I grew up believing that my hands were “too” small and my fingers “too” short. Also, my left hand’s pinky finger (and less so, my ring finger) got genuinely damaged in elementary school, and my left thumb got damaged in high school. (I do live with the consequences of those accidents every day.)

Nevertheless, none of that should really have stopped me from doing what I can with what I have, if I care. Only when older and wiser did I realize that in the end, this is all we can do in life, and it is enough!

This February, I made a decision to seriously practice the recorder. I joined the local chapter of the American Recorder Society. For the first time in my life, I have made the effort to practice intelligently and efficiently, and most importantly, regularly (as in approximately an hour every day of the week). And I believe I have done pretty well in the past eight months. I am continuing to improve my playing, and my enjoyment has deepened.

I’m not going to lie: every time I pick up my alto or tenor recorder (I also have a soprano and am planning to get a bass), I momentarily wish my hands were bigger, my right pinky longer, and my entire left hand less messed up, but such thoughts disappear quickly, because I am no longer willing to play victim, and instead focus on doing what I need to do to make music.

I wish Byron Janis well in his current mission to inspire everyone, from disadvantaged youths to injured veterans, to overcome adversity and follow their passion with perseverance!

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