“People with deep love never grow old,” wrote American education pioneer Dorothy Canfield Fisher. “They can die of old age, but they still die young.” Words that also aptly characterized the most famous piano pedagogue in the Netherlands, Jan Wijn. Jan Wijn passed away on Tuesday evening after a short illness.
On a weekday afternoon, Wijn would sometimes suddenly hang up on the phone and elaborate on a wonderful recital or album he had heard. Wonder ran through his veins. The cynicism was alien to him, though he had every reason to be.
Jan Wijn was a promising concert pianist when the fourth finger of his right hand started to lead a life of its own. After years of unsuccessful search for a cure, he was forced to give up the world stage. “I cried about it. But teaching dampened the pain,” he said two years ago NRC†
Already during his solo career he started as a teacher at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, where he only retired in 2020, at the age of 86. After he left the concert hall, he was able to extend his teaching hours, because he was a sought-after teacher. An interest that he mainly owed to an 18-year-old grammar school who stood on his doorstep in the early 1970s: Ronald Brautigam. Wijn characterized him as “a boy with great pianistic ease, common sense and above all an inner fire.” The teacher didn’t see Brautigam’s great career as his credit. “But apparently some people thought otherwise. And who was I to get them out of that delusion. In any case, it meant that more good students came my way.”
Also read the latest interview with Jan Wijn: ‘Give me a student and I’ll function’
Don’t push anything
Each piece of music tells a story, about which Wijn liked to exchange ideas with his students. He didn’t want to force anything on them. Every musician, he thought, should follow his own convictions. But he did try them. Wijn learned this from his own teacher at the Amsterdam Conservatory, Cornelius Berkhout, in the early 1950s, where Wijn entered as a 17-year-old. “How do you keep your hands?” asked Berkhout. Wine put his fingers on the keys. “And why so?” the teacher wanted to know. “Just because it should be,” muttered the young pianist. ‘That’s a pity,’ replied Berkhout, ‘because I teach you to play with the palms up. And then you certainly don’t ask why?” Nothing is taken for granted, he learned that first lesson.
“He didn’t do it to belittle me,” Wijn confessed, “but to make me aware of what I was doing and why.”
Wine spoke in beautiful metaphors. With Rachmaninov, his students had to pay particular attention to the thumbs, “because those nice fat fingers prefer to stay in their bed”. Music breathes, just like us, Wijn believed. That is why he sometimes asked students to sing. “Sometimes pianists are too busy keying in white and black blocks. They often forget that we want to portray a horizontal movement with that vertical action. That is the paradox of the piano. Real musicality is feeling how one note gives birth to another. Because whether a sentence consists of words or notes, it must be pronounced understandably and tensely.” Logic, eloquence and timing were the three keywords in his lessons. “Music contains a story. Compare her to water. You can analyze that and come to the conclusion that it is H2O, but it is nicer to let it flow.”
Playing the piano and teaching remained a journey of discovery for Wijn without an end station. “A moving train, to which a wagon is constantly coupled. And every year I get the feeling: ‘Now I really teach well’.”
Also read the review of Wijn’s biography: ‘The paternal teacher of top pianists’
In the privacy of his music room, the small extension behind his house in Soest, he not only taught until the end, but also continued to study pieces himself, because he wanted to continue to feel like a musician and keep his mind flexible. “Whoever wants to have to get up every day as a student.”
Jan Wijn turned 88 years old.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of 14 July 2022