Moissaye Boguslawski used to play the piano at cheap dance halls until his fingers
bled — At thirteen, he gave lessons to other children at fifteen cents
an hour — From the time he was four years old he worked, against
overwhelming odds, to make himself the distinguished musician he is today.
SOME years ago, a slender black-haired boy used to play the piano
in one of Chicago's cheap dance halls. He was barely fifteen, yet
he had to play there for eight hours at a stretch, two or three nights a week.
On Sunday — known to most of us as a day of rest — he began at
two o'clock in the afternoon and, with one hour for supper
between six and seven, played until three or four o'clock Monday morning;
twelve or thirteen hours of work altogether!
Time and again, his fingers would bleed until the ivory keys were red instead
of white. Finally he hit upon the device of putting court-plaster on his
fingers. It interfered with the delicacy of his touch; but as noise was the
chief essential this was not a serious drawback.
In the small hours of the morning he would drag himself home to the tenement
where he lived with his father and mother. But at eight o'clock, after a few
hours of sleep, he was up again, practicing on his own poor old square piano,
which had been bought, second-hand, for five dollars eleven years before.
It was wheezy with age. The keys, however, were still intact; and he did not
have to pound them now for a mob of noisy dancers. He could develop his hands
and train his fingers, even though he could not evoke beautiful music from
the old instrument he played on.
The boy was Moissaye Boguslawski, now one of the best pianists in the country
and one of the most successful teachers of piano playing. He has taught
thousands of pupils, beginning when he himself was a boy only thirteen years
He received fifteen cents a lesson then, his pupils being the children of his
neighbors in the Chicago Ghetto. To-day, as one of the head professors in the
Chicago Musical College, he receives fifteen dollars for a lesson; exactly
one hundred times the amount of his first fee. As for his own playing,
it has won the praise of the most severe critics in New York, Boston,
Chicago, and the other musical centers of this country.
His personal story is an extraordinary one; a story of almost incredible
courage, and patience. Then, too, there is his experience as a teacher.
In probably a million American homes, right now, there is a daily discussion
as to whether it will pay to have Gladys, or Dorothy, or Johnnie, or little
Bill "take lessons" on the piano. Boguslawski has some interesting things
to say on this subject.
He is thirty-five years old now. It probably will surprise a good many readers
to be told that Paderewski was older than that when he won fame as a pianist.
Boguslawski looks younger than he really
is; for he is still as slender as a boy and his thick hair is actually
"as black as midnight." In his make-up he is a curious combination of poetry
and practical business sense.
Although his name is Russian, Boguslawski was born in Chicago in a tenement
house of what was then the Ghetto. He had his first piano lessons when he was
four years old, on a second-hand instrument which his father bought for five
dollars. He is now one of the leading professors in the Chicago Musical
College, and has won a wide reputation as a concert pianist. He is only
thirty-five years old. But into those years has been crowded an almost
incredible amount of work; and up to the time he was twenty it was done
in the face of constant privations and discouragements.
"I was born in a tenement on Canal Street, which was then
the Jewish quarter of Chicago," he said to me recently, while
he was in New York making records for the phonograph and the player piano.
"Both my father and my mother came from Russia. My father
made a precarious living by playing the clarinet or the flute
at Jewish weddings. And my mother, before she was married, worked in a
"That was what she did. But what she wanted to do was to
become a singer. When she met my father —" Boguslawski smiled —
"well, of course, she married him because she loved him. But I imagine
it was easier for her to love him because he was a musician;
at least, he played a musical instrument, and she naïvely imagined that
she was, so to speak, marrying a musical career for herself.
"Instead, she found herself living in two rooms on the top floor of a tenement,
with a hard struggle to keep the wolf from the door.
Her dreams of becoming a singer quickly faded. But when I put in my appearance
she transferred her ambition to me, hoping and praying, from the day I
was born, that I would become a real musician.
"What I have achieved I owe in great measure to her. When I was four years
old she persuaded my father to buy a funny old square piano, so that
I could take lessons. It cost five dollars, and I can remember now
the trouble they had in getting it up all those flights of narrow stairs.
It took up so much room that we had to dispense with a dining table and use
the top of the piano instead. I was so small that I ate my meals standing.
"An old German, named Steinbach, gave me lessons at fifty cents apiece
plus ten cents for car fare. I had one lesson a week, except when there was
a Jewish holiday.
Poor as our home was, my mother always kept it immaculately clean.
Whenever a religious holiday came around, the rooms were scrubbed almost
from floor to ceiling. And on these occasions
I missed my weekly lesson, because
my mother was not strong enough to do
this scrubbing, and the sixty cents had to
go to a charwoman instead of to Steinbach.
"Later, I had a young Russian for a
teacher. He was a bit better than Steinbach,
but not very good. Still, it was the
best my I parents could do for me; and,
poor as it was, it meant a degree of self-sacrifice
which you can hardly comprehend.
"I used to practice several hours a day
when I was only seven or eight years old.
If I had been fortunate enough to have a
good teacher — who knows? I might have
been saved years of struggle;
but perhaps I should have
missed some of the things
I got from the struggle.
"As it was, I did learn to play, because I kept everlastingly at it.
As a matter of fact, I was chiefly my own teacher. I was my own task-master
too; and I drove myself harder than anyone else would have driven me.
"When I was ten years old,
I began to go with my
father to play at Jewish
weddings. He had hard
work to collect the full fee
for me, I remember. People
didn't want to pay a child
a man's price, even though
I did a man's work.
"WHEN I was thirteen I
played in a Yiddish
theatre frequented chiefly by
peddlers and junkmen. Inwardly,
I rebelled against
the environment. I hated it!
"But I always tried to keep
myself aloof from degrading surroundings.
I would have nothing to do with
the people. I would
not drink with them — which
was customary — or even
talk with them."
Boguslawski's next experience
was the one I have already mentioned, the
one in the dance hall, where
he used to play until his fingers bled.
"When I look back at that time," he said, "I
wonder at the dogged persistence of that boy who was myself.
During the intermissions between dances I used to
push down the practice pedal, so that the keys would not sound when
struck; and even when my fingers were cracked
and bleeding I would spend the intermissions
doing various exercises, especially in
double-thirds, which are one of the most
difficult tests for the pianist.
"I am very grateful to that boy now,"
he said with a smile; "for I think I may
claim to have a mastery of double-thirds
possessed by very few of even the
world's greatest pianists.
"Next I set up for myself, as it were, by forming my own orchestra
to play at Jewish weddings. This so-called orchestra
consisted of only three pieces, and each
player received three an one-half dollars a night. I took part of the
money earned in this way to pay for some lessons at a cheap little music school.
didn't amount to much, but it was the best I could afford.
"About this time, I heard that Ossip
Gabrilowitsch, the famous Russian pianist,
was coming to Chicago. Before this, I
apparently hadn't thought of trying to
bring myself to the attention of any real
musician. I just plodded along more or
less blindly, doing the best I could by
myself. But when I heard that Gabrilowitsch
was coming, I determined to try for a hearing.
"In my mind I chose a Rubinstein concerto as the piece I
wanted to play; but I hadn't the money with which to buy the
music. I thought about it by day and dreamed about it by
night, and finally I had an inspiration. The man who ran the
little music school I attended was going to send out a lot of
circulars. I told him of my predicament, asked him to get the
concerto for me, and to let me pay for it by addressing these
circulars. He agreed; and by addressing two thousand
envelopes I earned the coveted piece of music.
The Ages at Which We Make
the Most Progress
THERE are two periods when human beings make the
greatest progress," says Professor Boguslawski. "One
is between the ages of eight and twelve; the other is
between twenty and thirty.
"The intermediate period, between twelve and twenty,
is the time of adolescence; a period of emotional
excitement and constant distraction. The eight-to-twelve
period is perhaps the most important in the life of
a human being. The character is so plastic then that you
can shape it almost entirely at your will.
"Parents should understand this. What they do with
their children in those four years is almost unalterable
later on. During that period, too, you can get a child to
do more serious and more concentrated work than he
will do a few years later. You can dominate him then — which
you cannot do between twelve and twenty.
"When they reach their twenties, if they have the right
stuff in them, you get another period of rapid
development, of serious and concentrated effort. Only,
now it is at the behest of their own will; not, as in the
case of most of them when they were children, at the
behest of some older person."
"WHEN Gabrilowitsch came to Chicago, I took my precious
concerto and, with my mother, went to see the great pianist at
his hotel. He listened to my playing, then he said to my
"'I will be perfectly frank with you. I cannot see in your boy
any evidence of genius. He has some talent, and if his mind is
set on a musical career you had better send him to a good
teacher and let him learn what he can. But I do not see
anything of great promise in him.'
"Well — that was a bitter pill to swallow," said Boguslawski,
shaking his head.
"After sacrificing my whole childhood and part of my youth,
after working and slaving day and night for ten years, giving
up everything in the way of pleasure and self-indulgence and
now to be told that it had all been useless, that I hadn't the
ability to reach the goal! As we went down in the elevator
after leaving Gabrilowitsch, I didn't care whether it ever
stopped going down. I wished it wouldn't stop.
"But that was only the first reaction. Dogged determination,
when it has become the habit of years, is hard to break. And
for ten years I had been developing
strength, not only in my hands, but in my will also. Before
my mother and I had reached home this will began to assert
"Before we went to Gabrilowitsch I had said that I wanted to
get the verdict of a man who was competent to judge my
ability. And I had declared that I would abide by his verdict.
Whatever it was, it should decide my future.
"WELL, from my point of view, his judgment was one that
condemned me. He admitted that I might become a mediocre
musician; but there was no comfort to me in that. The only
goal I cared to reach was a far higher one than mere
"I remember the whole experience as if it had occurred
yesterday. You couldn't have found, in the city of Chicago,
two people more silent and crushed than my mother and
myself as we walked out of the Auditorium Hotel. But we
had not gone far before something in me came to life. It
welled up in me, choked me, brought tears of defiance to my
eyes. And as I stumbled blindly along beside my mother, I
clenched my hands and swore to myself that I wouldn't abide
by the verdict that had been
pronounced; that I could reach the goal I had chosen, and that
I would prove that I could. That experience, instead of taking
the heart out of me, simply increased my determination to
carry out my purpose.
"There is a sequel to that incident which may interest you,"
said Boguslawski with a little gesture of apology. "A few
years ago, after one of my recitals in New York,
Gabrilowitsch came back of the stage to speak to me. It was
the first time I had seen him since that afternoon when he had
passed judgment on my playing. He came up to me, put his
hands on my shoulders, and said:
"'Well, my boy, time has made great changes!'
"Before he left, he engaged me to appear as soloist with the
Detroit Symphony Orchestra, of which he is the conductor. I
think that has meant more to me than any other recognition I
in that first unhappy interview,
gave me one piece of advice: to study with some
good teacher. I never had done
this, because I never could scrape up enough
money. But now I redoubled my
efforts, went without everything except the bare
necessities of life, and so was
able to have some lessons from Rudolf Ganz,
the celebrated Swiss pianist who
was then teaching in Chicago. He went back to Europe
after a time; but meanwhile I had
gained a great deal from his
instruction — the only really
good instruction I ever had."
"It seems too bad that some wealthy patron, or
patroness, did not take an
interest in you," I said.
"'I'm not so sure of that," replied
Boguslawski. "As a matter of fact, a rich
woman did seem inclined to take
me up at one time. But it
involved a sacrifice of my artistic
independence to which I could not consent. If
the chance had come when I was a child, my
parents and I probably would have taken
advantage of it. But the struggles
I had gone through made me old for my
years. They had also made me strong in my
determination to own myself.
"WHEN a young artist becomes the
protégé of some
wealthy benefactor, this benefactor almost
inevitably assumes a sort of
proprietorship. The artist is at his patron's
beck and call; and this, it seems to me, must
inevitably undermine his
independence, personal and artistic.
"It is quite different when the
money is advanced as a loan to be repaid later.
Some companies which manufacture
pianos have done this. They finance a young
artist, launch him, and advertise
him. He repays the money out of the receipts from
his concerts when he begins to give public performances.
"Even pianists who already have
made a reputation, and who
wish to give a season of recitals, are
sometimes financed in this way.
One very well-known man, a
really distinguished pianist, told
me recently that when he has
repaid the advances made to him,
and all the expenses of his season, he is lucky
if he has four thousand dollars left for himself.
"I have never regretted that I decided to stand
on my own feet. I continued to do this, by
teaching and by playing at the everlasting
round of Jewish weddings, until I was almost
twenty. Then, one day, I met a
musical friend who told me that the Kansas
City Conservervatory of Music
needed someone to be at the head of its piano
department. When I said that I would
apply for the position, he laughed at me.
"'What!' he said. 'You think you could fill that
"'Yes, I do!' I declared. 'I simply
haven't had the opportunity to show what I am
capable of. This will give me
the chance. It will be sink or swim.
But if I have to swim, or drown — well, I won't drown!
I can promise you that.'
"He looked at me for a moment, then
he said, 'All right! If you have that much
confidence in yourself, I have enough confidence to
recommend you for the position.'
"I wrote my application and my friend
did recommend me. The director of the
Conservatory was to be in Chicago in two
weeks. I spent the interval raising a
mustache, so that he wouldn't think I was
a mere boy. And I got the appointment.
"I went to Kansas City on a salary of
fifty dollars a week — which was more than
I had ever before earned. The conservatory charged
pupils one dollar a lesson;
and sometimes I gave as many as eighty-five
lessons a week. That was about fourteen
lessons a day, six days in the week.
After teaching all day long, until six
o'clock, I would snatch a hurried meal,
then practice until midnight.
"The second year I was there I persuaded the
board to raise the fee to two dollars a lesson. It is
never right to continue to
sell goods for less than they are worth;
and I knew our 'goods' were worth more
than we were getting for them.
"I also convinced the heads of the school that it would be
to its advantage if I appeared in public recitals. Art
is no exception to the rule that advertising is necessary, if the
public is to see and appreciate
what kind of 'goods' you have to sell.
"My immediate object was to become known in and
around Kansas City; because that was the field
from which the
conservatory drew its students. So I
began to give local recitals. You probably will laugh" —
and he laughed himself, —
"when I tell you that while I was working on a program for
a recital I used to try the pieces on the janitor.
"YOU see, I felt this way about it, and, what is
more, I still feel the same way: I had two things to
accomplish: First, my execution must be
technically good. The janitor
was not qualified to judge me on this point, but I
didn't need him for that anyway. I was my own
severest critic in technique. But the other
thing I had to do was to interpret the
music; get its message across to the
audience. I do
not care how mechanically perfect a
man's execution may be, if his playing
leaves his hearers cold,
if he has not made them feel
the meaning and the beauty of it all, then he is not a great
"He does not have to choose between
playing to the critics and playing to the
crowd. He must, of course, have a mastery
of technique. But the humblest listener,
who doesn't know one note from another,
can be made to feel the beauty of
"That is why I tried my pieces on the janitor. I
could take care of the technique myself; but I
wanted to know whether I could make
music that would reach and satisfy others. He
wasn't easily satisfied either! I can assure you
that I felt as happy as if I had received
the plaudits of the multitude when he
would say, in his blunt fashion:
"'Well, Mr. Boguslawski, you done that fine to-night, I like it!'
"For several years, I went on building
up a local reputation. Then I thought the time had
come to meet the acid test of a New York
hearing. This city is the great clearing-house of
musical opinion. The critics hear probably ten
times as much
good music as anyone else in this country.
They are almost fed up on it. Even if I should give a recital
here, I didn't know whether the leading critics would
come to hear me. But I determined to try it, at
"It costs a lot of money to hire Carnegie
Hall or Aeolian Hall, much more than I
had saved at that time. But thanks to the
late Mr. W. R. Nelson, of the Kansas City 'Star,'
the matter was arranged,
and my wife and I came on.
I was so frightened by
the ordeal ahead of me that I was sick in bed for
twenty-four hours before the recital. When I
reached the hall I was so
white that even the stage attendant was moved to pity.
"'Don't take it so hard, sir!' he said,
patting me on the shoulder as if I had been a
scared child. 'Why, the last time Mr. Paderewski
played here, he was so nervous that his friends had
to take him and shove him onto the stage! You'll
be all right when you get out there'."
Evidently the attendant was a good prophet;
for I have seen the notices which
appeared in the New York papers the next day,
and they must have brought intense happiness
to the young musical Lochinvar who had come
out of West. The great critics did go to hear him; and
Boguslawski returned to Kansas City carrying the laurels of a
He stayed there several years longer. Busoni,
one of the most famous pianists in the world,
gave a recital in Kansas City during that
time, heard Boguslawski play, and
begged him to go back to Europe with
him and study with him.
"IN ONE way, that was a temptation,"
said Boguslawski to me. "I had the greatest
admiration for Busoni. But I felt that I wanted to
stay in America; that, such a I was, I
was the product of America. So I decided to keep
on as I had begun. After a while, the offer
came of a professorship in the
Chicago Musical College, one of the leading
musical conservatories of this country. I took it.
I am there associated there with men like Felix
Borowsky, Percy Grainger, and
Leopold Auer, the most famous violin
teacher in the world.
"Chicago and the entire Middle West are a wonderful
field for the musician. From Minneapolis to St.
Louis, and from Detroit to Denver, a
great musical awakening is going on. It
is a wonderful thing to have a part in
this. As a boy I used to dream of personal
recognition. That has come; and of
course it is very gratifying. But I am
sincere when I say that if I had to choose between
personal success as a soloist and
helping to make music a part of countless other
people's lives, I should choose the latter.
"For instance, I love to teach. I really do.
People have an idea that a musician
teaches under protest; that he does it simply for his bread
and butter. My teaching brings me not
only the necessities but all the luxuries I have
any real use for. But it brings me far more than that. Every
new pupil is just one more opportunity for me to
enrich people's lives. For that is what an
appreciation of good music does; and if
the student gains nothing else from his study, he
does gain this appreciation.
"I suppose there are hundreds of thousands of
men and women who took piano
lessons when they were children and who
almost never touch a piano now. But that does not
prove that the time and money spent on their
lessons were wasted. I feel confident that the audiences at all the best
concerts and recitals are
composed very largely of these
"They will tell you apologetically
that they haven't 'kept up' their music. But they
have kept it up! You play a piece
of music yourself in order to, I
might say, possess it. If you enjoy and
appreciate it when someone else
plays it, then it is yours in the highest sense."
"But do they get this appreciation even though
they have no great talent themselves?" I
"Yes, they do," was the earnest reply.
"Talent is rare."
Boguslawski stopped, thought a
moment, then shook his head.
"That is not true," he went on.
"Talent is not rare. It is less rare
than it used to be. In fact, it is not
uncommon. The thing that is rare
is the force that makes it possible
to develop talent to its highest
If you ask me what is the one
thing I look for in a pupil,
the one sign that tells me the boy or the girl
will achieve something
worth while I can answer you
immediately: It is the
will. I would rather
have a pupil with just an average degree of
talent, but with a supreme and
unshakable will to
conquer by hard work than to have a brilliant,
but careless and indolent genius.
"I THINK I am safe in
saying that some of the most
distinguished musicians are not geniuses at all.
They have become great by pure force of will. I
have one pupil, a little boy of eight,
who is almost certain to achieve something far
beyond the ordinary. Not because his talent is
remarkable, for it is not.
seems almost dull. He is timid and
lacks personality. He speaks so low that I have
to bend my head to catch what he says.
"But the child has the will to conquer.
He just stubbornly goes at the job as if it
were his only concern in life. He practices
four hours a day. Not because anybody
else makes him; but of his own will! He
will succeed. He will do it by main force —
but he will do it. And that is the quality
I look for. It is what I would look
for if I were sizing up people for any other kind
of a career. Give me the person with the
will to do and to achieve,
and you may take all the brilliant ones who
think they have genius, and
therefore can succeed without any particular
"I have found that girls possess more talent than
boys. By 'talent' I mean natural ability. They also
learn more quickly and they work more conscientiously.
"With these points in their favor, you would
naturally expect that they would reach a
higher goal — but they don't! Not as pianists, at
any rate. Even the greatest women pianists cannot be put on the
same level as the greatest among the men.
"I think I can explain this. Here is one
significant detail: Women play too fast!
That doesn't sound important; but the
explanation of it is very important. Men have a
sort of patience which women
lack. They can 'bide their time' better than
"Suppose a man and a woman play the same
composition, perhaps a long and
intricate one. The woman plays it with a
great rush of feeling. She is swept
forward by her emotions. She is in their
power — they are not in her power. But the man
will not be hurried; he builds up his effects
with undeviating design; he has
his emotions, but he keeps them in
their place, so to speak.
"His is the patience of conscious purposes
and conscious power. 'I know what
I want to do,' he seems to say; 'but I will
take my time in the doing.' So his
grasp is more deliberate, and therefore stronger.
The woman wants to show you everything
in almost feverish haste.
The result is that she may stir your emotions, but
she won't give you the impression of mastery
and controlled ability which the man conveys.
"However, when it comes to appreciation of music I think the
women are superior to the men. I am
speaking now of the average
audience, not of exceptional cases. The average
man wants 'fireworks'
in his music; something like the
'Rakoczy March' for example. He likes brilliant
effects; the obvious in extremes. Women have a
much subtler perception. They appreciate the
finer shades, both in meaning and in execution.
"Possibly this is because of the very thing we were speaking
of just now. A great many
more girls than boys receive piano
lessons. And perhaps this explains
why more women than men appreciate good
music. Those early lessons were not
thrown away. The few hundred dollars
which their parents invested in lessons are paying
dividends now in a pleasure and a
satisfaction which I do not
think would otherwise have been possible. The little girls
who are practicing their exercises today will
largely make up the music-loving
audiences of twenty or thirty years from now."