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Hamptons Life

Nov 22, 2010 11:52 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Byron Janis: An Extraordinary Life

Nov 22, 2010 11:52 AM

Throughout his life, piano prodigy Byron Janis has fought through numerous injuries—two to his hands, which would strike fear into the heart of any pianist—to become one of the most acclaimed, honored and determined American piano players to date.

And most recently, he’s added to his vast repertoire by penning a new book, “Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal.” The talented pianist, author and paranormalist will stop by the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton on Friday, November 26, for a book signing.

The first notable chapter in Mr. Janis’s own unique story began in New York City, when he was taken there from his Pennsylvania home at the age of 7 to study with legendary piano teacher Adele Marcus. By the time he was in his 20s, both his career as a pianist and his paranormal connections were firmly entrenched as part of his life, according to Mr. Janis.

“When I was young, I said to myself, ‘I want more than music,’” he explained during a recent telephone interview. “I didn’t understand this because I had an excellent career in music, which was everything to me. But gradually, the paranormal began to show itself. There were moments when I felt like I was somewhere else. It’s difficult to explain. I began wondering what this ‘other place’ was about. Then I remembered that Chopin believed in other worlds and spoke about it often.”

For Mr. Janis, the paranormal is a personal thing that’s not even, in his opinion, well-defined by the word itself, as he feels that many of the experiences defy explanation.

“I hate the word ‘paranormal,’” he said. “Because what it really is the ‘unknown normal.’ Everything is normal that happens on this earth, but we may not understand it ... Yet.”

Also not “normal” for a professional pianist, or at least extremely challenging, would be Mr. Janis’s medical difficulties. A severe cut to his pinky finger as a youth paralyzed the tip of that finger (doctors told him he’d never play piano again, he said) and a second injury later in life resulted in him having to adjust to a shortened thumb. As if those trials weren’t enough, severe arthritis in both hands struck him in the early 1970s.

But he refused to give up on his music.

“I played for many years without telling a soul about the arthritis,” Mr. Janis said. “Then I decided to talk about it to the National Arthritis Foundation, which was the hardest thing for me to do. At first it was mind over matter, you know, the stronger the mind, the more we can conquer things. So I told myself I didn’t have it. Then I finally said to myself, ‘okay, I have it, and I have to find a way to overcome it.’”

Today, Mr. Janis manages his arthritis with a combination of therapies approved by his doctor. He still plays piano occasionally, although he’s also found other ways to channel his creativity. There’s the book, for one, which he started writing 10 years ago, but put on hold for awhile.

“That wasn’t the right time to write it. And I couldn’t write it without including the paranormal experiences, as they were an important part of my life,” he explained, adding, “other people have told me similar stories that happened to them, and have asked why I didn’t write about it earlier. I said because I didn’t want people to think I was mad!”

Another new challenge for Mr. Janis is composing music for other projects, he reported. One such project is writing music for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” for music publishers Warner/Chappell.

“I decided this would be a way to continue doing music. So I wrote 22 songs in six weeks. I worked day and night,” he said. “I identified with the main character as he has a disability, and I have a disability ... So even if I can’t play, I can still write music. I may have arthritis, but it doesn’t have me.”

Byron Janis will appear at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton on Friday, November 26, from 6 to 7 p.m. to sign copies of his new book “Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal.” A documentary about Mr. Janis is also currently airing on PBS television stations.

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