Jan Lisiecki is by all standards of comparison, a genius. Skilled in a way that makes his pianistic abilities rival those of someone three or four times his age, and already boasting an international career, there can be no question of his talents. Handling his success with equal amounts of ease and grace, at age thirteen he is a source of wisdom to anyone working to manage life while growing up, and building a career.
You have been studying the piano since you were five. How did your interest in the instrument first develop?
When I was very young, I enjoyed math a lot. There was never enough for me to do. At that time, the school had already accelerated me one class. The teacher suggested that since I love math problems so much, I could take up some extracurricular activities to develop and keep me busy – and music came into my mind naturally. My parents' friend offered an upright piano to start lessons. It was an old instrument, but from the first moment I loved the sound – the piano sang for me immediately.
Given your age and talent, comparisons between yourself and other prodigies are inevitable. Chopin began performing at age eight, Claudio Arrau could read musical notes before letters, and when Louis Moreau Gottschalk was your age he moved to Europe for classical training. Given the tendency of people to draw these parallels, do you feel your age adds an extra layer of pressure to your performance, and if so, how do you handle it?
Age shouldn’t be a factor for the music listener. What should matter is the quality or originality of the performance, and age in many ways works against a true perception. Critics taken by surprise question what they hear - especially when the artist is young and dares to have a personal interpretation. One can only afford to be original when it is true to what the music conveys. Many artists have been looked at critically before becoming endeared. The good thing about being young is that you grow older every day. Every time I experience something in the world, it also applies to the way I understand music. Soon I will be 14, then 20 and then hopefully 85 years old. I don’t feel pressure when I perform - either by my age, the stage, or the event’s “importance” - because I am not trying to be perfect, or superior to others. I can only hope to play better in the future and I know how much I still have to learn. I am very humbled by the artists you mention. How can one compare the genius of composing the Chopin F-minor at age 19 to the ability to perform it at 12?
No doubt one of the more interesting aspects of your life as a young artist is that you have managed to remain so wonderfully balanced—(notice I didn’t say “normal”). Anyone who knows you sees that you are completely void of the eccentricities and peculiarities that get written about for some other artists, even more than their talent. Do you find it difficult to stay focused on your work and your career, while still making time for fun?
Not at all. Don’t forget that at age 13, you have your mom to perform the balancing act! I love to play piano, to perform, to travel, to meet, and to learn from people. I also love going to school and not even mentioning to kids that I can play the piano and to simply be able to have fun. The biggest gift that I got is not the ability to play the piano, but as my parents say, to be constantly happy!
You not only play the piano, but you also sing, and have won awards for composition. For a musician, it is almost the equivalent of being able to speak several languages. With music clearly a central focus of your life, what role does each play in terms of your artistic expression? In other words, is it easier to express certain emotions through say, singing, than through composition, or convey certain ideas at the piano, instead of the voice? What do each of the disciplines give you?
Composition is the foundation of any music – for the performer, the listener, or even for the math-lover! Now I study composition with two different teachers – and they definitely don’t speak the same language! Thanks to studying composition, I have a deep appreciation for Mozart’s, Beethoven’s, and Chopin’s (etc.) abilities and more and more I am learning how to respect their wishes by reading the score (ha!) the way they want! Studying voice and singing is a pure joy! It is very different from playing piano, as for me playing the piano is very intimate; while in singing you have to communicate also with your whole body, especially the face and eyes. I consider piano introverted and singing extroverted. They both complete each other. Of course, I try to apply my understanding of the human voice to the piano. Chopin would repeatedly tell all his students “chantez, chantez” [sing, sing].… Much easier said than done! But one should never stop trying.
Looking at your list of engagements, it would be hard for any artist not to want to be in your position. Still, at thirteen there is a wealth of time for decision-making in terms of career. Do you have any career ambitions or endeavors right now that don’t include music?
I would love to have a pilot’s license before a driver’s license, then I would like to learn Italian and German, then Mandarin, and then… Well, I believe that life will unfold the way it is supposed to unfold and I cannot wait to see what destiny holds for me.