A Passion For Music


Concert pianist, teacher, and university music professor, William Corbett-Jones—like most musicians—has had a lifelong love affair with music. Yet, unlike most musicians, his musical journey to become the well-known concert pianist and artist/teacher at San Francisco State University did not take the traditional path. While most performing artists of his and succeeding generations have either come from a musical family, or are products of a music conservatory such as Juilliard, Corbett-Jones did not have the benefit of either. Born (1929) in the Philippines (where his father was an employee with the American President Lines at the time of his birth), but raised primarily by his maternal grandparents in Richmond, California near San Francisco, his future as a career military officer seemed predetermined. Corbett-Jones’ parents, who had married as teenagers, divorced when he was barely three, consequently his grandfather–a retired Army Captain–as well as his mother were convinced a career as a military officer was the ne plus ultra for a young man. Were it not for his exceptional musical talent combined with a single-minded determination, Corbett-Jones’ career path most certainly would have taken a different turn.

Although musical, no one in Corbett-Jones’ family read music, had any musical training, nor did they ever listen to classical music on the radio. His earliest musical interests began in the public schools, when–at age ten–he innocently raised his hand to play the flute and other instruments in the school band. Three years later, when his grandparents (who were a great influence on his early life) purchased a piano for his younger sister, he became fascinated and asked to take lessons too. From that first lesson, he knew he wanted to become a pianist.

After a year with local piano teacher, Emma Gibbons–who he credits for giving him a very good start–his grandfather took him to study with Allen Bier in San Francisco. Bier, who had studied with Vladimir De Pachman, Josef Lhevinne, and Harold Bauer, opened a totally new world to him. “I was a young teenager and I did not know any piano repertory,” he claims. “I did not even know there were Mozart and Beethoven Sonatas, or Chopin Ballads and Etudes! Mr. Bier introduced all of this to me and I was completely enchanted.”

Yet, Corbett-Jones was unhappy and maladjusted at school. He had no interest in anything except music. He failed everything. “My day at that time was not going to school,” he recalled. “I would collect beer and coke bottles, enough to get a little money and then I would hitchhike to San Francisco during school hours to listen to classical recordings at Sherman Clay, pretending I was going to buy. Then I would go to a pool hall on Market Street until it was time to hitchhike home. My mother and grandparents knew my low grades would not fulfill their dream for me to go to West Point. Therefore, when I was fifteen, my grandfather decided to move to Hollywood, where my mother had recently found employment. You must remember,” he continued, “this was during World War II and Richmond was a ship building, wild, frontier-like town.”

Living in Hollywood for Corbett-Jones was a definite plus. It was a time in his life when his horizons were broadening and Hollywood was a far cry from the turbulent environment he had left in Richmond. Not only were the public high school academics higher, but he a greater opportunity to hear many of the performing artists of the day. During this time, he remembers hearing, Artur Schnabel, Jose Iturbi, Artur Rubinstein, and many other pianists. All of them made a colossal impression on him. Another singular experience he remembers while living in Hollywood was seeing the movie A Song to Remember. “I think I saw it twenty times and I went to the library to read everything I could learn about Chopin.”

Although his family could not afford a piano teacher while they were living in Hollywood, Corbett-Jones continued to practice on his own. His passion for music also took him to the Los Angeles Public Library where he borrowed every music book and score available to him. Always a prodigious and avid reader, he devoured everything he could find about music, even memorizing the borrowed musical scores because he did not have the money to buy them. He later maintained this was a distinct advantage toward his quick memorizing abilities today.

The successful outcome of a piano competition in Los Angeles with the prize of $100.00 won him lessons with John Crown, the star teacher in Los Angeles in the 1940s. However, Crown advised that he needed to improve his technique and instead, sent him to Alice Ehlers (the harpsichordist at USC) before studying with him. Ehlers, who was of the Viennese School and had studied with Wanda Landowska, gave him large doses of Cramer Etudes, Mozart Sonatas and Bach Preludes and Fugues, which he learned quickly and with great interest. After six months of preparation with Ehlers, he was finally able to return to Crown, but these lessons were suddenly canceled. His mother, who had remarried, moved her family to Arlington, Virginia, where her new war-hero husband was to be stationed.

“In Arlington I was a total drop out,” he recalled. “I was not able to take piano lessons and did not even enroll in school,” Instead, he formed the habit of going to the Library of Congress in Washington, where he spent everyday reading the library’s vast collection in the Music Department. These were incredible days for Corbett-Jones. The largest collection of music books and original scores in America were accessible to him. He pored over hundreds of them with a complete sense of awe and wonder. Allowed to practice on the library’s Steinway, he was even able to learn many works from their original manuscripts! The Coolidge auditorium at the library also had a constant parade of concerts, which he attended regularly. He heard the Budapest Quartet play the complete Beethoven cycle, Henri Temianka play the Beethoven violin sonatas with Leonard Shure, Rudolf Serkin perform the Brahms cycle with Adolph Busch. He heard many other artists of the day, including Horowitz–then about forty-two and at the top of his form–perform at Constitution Hall, where he ushered. He heard many great orchestras perform. They all came to Washington.

In 1946, a professional pianist who happened to hear Corbett-Jones play the Steinway at the Library of Congress recommended he should take lessons from the best possible teacher, Madam Samaroff at Juilliard. “I immediately wrote her,” he said. “However, she replied she had a full schedule, but suggested I take her summer class and work with her assistant, the excellent Joseph Battista.” While the lessons lasted only the summer, this brief time with Samaroff and Joseph Battista at Juilliard was one of the most musically fulfilling experiences of Corbett-Jones’ life.

At the end of the summer, another family move–this time to occupied Japan–motivated him to resolve to continue his musical study on his own. At seventeen, this was a critical time in his life; a time when he could have advanced musically and academically. Yet, circumstances found him with no money, no teacher–and what is perhaps the most critical–the financial necessity to support himself. He returned to San Francisco, where he was able to find several part-time jobs, rent a piano to begin teaching, and practiced on his own until he could afford a teacher. He also enrolled himself in Galileo High School in San Francisco, for he was almost eighteen and had not finished high school. By the time he graduated in 1948, Corbett-Jones was entirely self supporting and has been since.

A few private lessons with pianists, Egon Petri (who was teaching at Oakland’s Mills College), Alexander Lieberman, and Lili Kraus, followed in the late 1940s. “Petri took the job at Mills College during the war as did Darius Milhaud,” recalled Corbett-Jones. “The war years flushed so many great artists out of Europe. Many came to California–Schonberg, Stravinsky, Milhaud, Petri, etc. I feel that living in California in the 1940s and 1950s gave me access to premium European culture.”

In the early 1950s, Corbett-Jones began to study with Adolph Baller, the prominent teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and by 1953, he gave his professional debut at the San Francisco Museum of Art. His enthusiastically acclaimed debut led to several appearances with the San Francisco Symphony and many other Bay Area concerts. By 1954, Corbett-Jones’ career had become very active. In addition to many local concerts, he accompanied various artists for Columbia Concerts out of New York; made recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Scarlatti Sonatas, and Haydn Sonatas; filmed five educational movies under the Ford Foundation with Henri Temianka and the Paganini String Quartet; and worked for Yehudi Menuhin and Josef Szigeti as rehearsal pianist.

In 1956, he was awarded both the Fulbright Scholarship and the Alfred Hertz Scholarship from the University of California. He accepted the Hertz over the Fulbright inasmuch as it awarded more financial help and enabled him to study in Vienna, a life long ambition. Vienna, however, did not fulfill the musical expectations he had long anticipated. Living expenses were also high and he was not allowed to practice in his modest apartment. There was no alternative but to return to the U.S and resolve to make a musical career. Within a year after his return, Corbett-Jones became a full faculty member at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Baller, who was frequently away on long tours with the Alma Trio, turned over his class of advanced students, which gave him an excellent opportunity to develop his teaching.

The middle and late 1950s continued to be professionally active, both performing and teaching. After the age of 26, Corbett-Jones never took another piano lesson, although he briefly studied chamber music in Siena, Italy with the Trio De Trieste. A London debut in 1960, with two USA tours as soloist with the Temianka Little Symphony and concert tours with noted soloists–many violinists–kept him active in the early 1960s. Additional concerts at the Salzburg Chamber and Meiringen Music Festivals, plus tours of Greece, Mexico, and the USA, filled his performance calendar in the middle and late 1960s.

In 1967, Corbett-Jones joined the faculty at the University of California at Santa Cruz and concurrently became an Associate Professor at San Francisco State University. During this time, he also toured extensively–nationally and internationally for eight years–as a member of the acclaimed Alma Trio. By 1973, he was awarded a doctoral equivalency and tenure as full professor from San Francisco Statue University, where he actively continues to teach and perform. Today, he continues to maintain a full teaching schedule at SFSU, while sustaining his very active concert performances–both solo and with orchestra–throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia. He lives with his delightful wife, Louise, who is a Systems Designer at Pacific Bell, and their eleven year-old daughter, Laura, who attends the French-American School in San Francisco. Corbett-Jones’ current joys–besides his family and music–are traveling, and reading in foreign languages (he is fluent in German, French, Italian, Spanish, and conversant in Mandarin.) An added delight for him–since became a father later in life–is taking pleasure in the numerous activities and vicissitudes of fatherhood.

During the many years that I have known and studied with William Corbett-Jones, I have always considered it a privilege to have come under his influence and professionalism. There are few who know, love, and share their art more than he does. Yet, he is also one of the most modest souls in the world about his musical gifts. As a teacher, his high standards, warmth of personality, and depth of knowledge and insight into music are always an inspiration to me. I am constantly amazed when I bring a new work to my lesson, for he has not only performed it (many times), but knows its complete history–what year the work was composed, where, and under what circumstances the composer created it.

As an educator, Corbett-Jones’ teaching philosophy is a unique mixture of both his own experiences and his teachers. In deference and gratitude to his former teachers, he also claims he has learned as much in rehearsal with professional colleagues, such as Gabor Rejto or Tossy Spivakovsky, as he has learned in his lessons. Continually reading and studying, he has taken everything he has been taught in such a way that he can not separate them. “The fact that I did not go to a conservatory or university has its strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “The weakness is my lack of a solid foundation at an early age. On the other hand, I had to show my initiative and was allowed to be more creative. I am reminded of the man who asked Brahms how to become a composer, and Brahms answered, ‘You go to a conservatory and take all the necessary courses.’ But the man replied, ‘Herr Brahms, you never did any of these things.’ Brahms answered, ‘I never had to ask how you become a composer!’

Corbett-Jones has developed practice techniques that come almost entirely from his own experiences and observations. For example, he advises us that practicing can be like giving yourself a lesson if the time is used efficiently. “Approach it systematically, but creatively,” he says. “:You must alternate your technique of practicing so your mind stays fresh. Always ask yourself what you want to improve before you practice.” He always directs us to use a “practice shopping list.” Are the notes, rhythm, tempo, pedaling, touch, dynamic contrasts and phrasing accurate? And also, work out the fingering to gain the maximum artistic result with the least amount of effort.

Good fingering, is perhaps Corbett-Jones’ most notable hallmark as a teacher. He calls himself a “fingering fanatic,” and maintains good fingering is very important to piano playing. It is a lifetime search for usable fingering that is effective and not injurious. During our lessons, he insists we write our fingering in after we have defined what is easiest for the fingers to learn, the easiest to remember, and the least tiring. Look for the simpler ‘key that opens the lock.’ “If you wish to improve your playing,” he maintains, “you must always continue to try to improve your fingering.”

The entire keyboard is your kingdom, he continues. “Do not neglect the most distant provinces, for you must feel you embrace the entire keyboard.” Practice scales and arpeggios over the entire gamut. Take passages out of the repertory which develops the big feel, such as the big skips at the end of the Liszt Rhapsody, No. 6, or the skips at the end of the Scherzo of the Chopin B-flat minor Sonata. One need not play the entire compositions, for it may be enough to learn selected passages for exercises.

In addition to fingering, Corbett-Jones is also very aware of the general physical address at the piano, the arms, the forearms, the shoulders and the way we sit. In order to avoid fatigue and injury, every joint in the body can move so far, and somewhere in the middle, there is maximal ease and comfort. Therefore, if you are too long at the maximum of that particular joint movement, there will be pain or fatigue. The challenge, he says, is to keep the movement within the comfort zone. The lateral motion of the wrist is also important. The hand should be in a straight line as much as possible. To avoid strain, one must adjust your upper torso by leaning back, forward, or left or right. Align your wrists and forearm and body in such a manner as to prevent strain. Proper body alignment at the piano not only prevents fatigue or injury, but a better legato touch is obtained, a playing technique of paramount importance to Corbett-Jones. He arranges his fingering so his hand is constantly opening and closing in such a way that his fingers and hand will not become as fatigued. “Chopin understood this concept and wrote in fingerings for his students that would not produce fatigue,” he said.

“Memorizing,” says Corbett-Jones,” is a very important aspect of musicianship.” He wants us to make a piece of music a part of ourselves, something that we can carry around and possess. “A piece must have the whole of one’s conscience,” he maintains. “Get the piece in your ear and memorize away from the piano. Develop the ability to picture every note in your mind.” The motivation to memorize a particular piece should be strong. If anything else is the case, the music may be memorized, but will probably be forgotten immediately. When memorizing, permit yourself intervals of rest so the brain can assimilate the new material. Do not engage in other learning activities during these rest periods, and above all, do not play or listen to other music. The first tryouts of a newly learned piece should be with the music, and then gradually wean yourself from the score. Play with the score and then do not look. If you get stuck, look at the music to remember the forgotten spot then look away and try again. Continue this way, adding bar by bar and phrase by phrase. “Memorizing is noticing things,” he continues. “Look for patterns and think of the bass as linear, mentally connecting the bottom notes.”

Sometimes we memorize a piece almost without conscious effort. Corbett-Jones calls these unconscious memories “islands of memory,” places that one simply remembers without having consciously memorized them. When this is the case, memorizing is a matter of building bridges or memorizing the connective material between these “islands.” “Our purpose,” he ways, “must be to make our memorization as secure as possible so we can rely on it under pressure. We must know our piece consciously and unconsciously. Notice basic things about the piece, e.g. the key, harmony, the major divisions of the piece, etc. After playing it awhile, close your eyes and visualize the music.” When not playing the piece, you should also be able to turn it on and run it through your mind. Memorizing is akin to studying a foreign language, for you have to learn and forget and relearn each word several times before it finally sticks in your mind. “It may take many more times before a musical passage stays,” he advises.

Above all, Corbett-Jones is an extraordinary pianist and a wonderful teacher. While his goal is to make his students humanists while equipping them technically, it is simply his passion for music and sense of high purpose that effects everyone around him. At the end of a lesson, no matter how badly you feel you played, he always shows much kindness and never fails to praise and encourage us. He denounces those that maintain the piano is on its way to extinction and emphatically affirms that the piano is not a dinosaur. “There never can be too much beauty,” he says. “Art of all kinds must be kept alive. It is very important to know that we need the amateurs as well as the professionals to keep it flourishing.”

1952 Professional debut. Several appearances with San Francisco Symphony
1954 Recorded five educational films for the Ford Foundation with Henri T Temianka and Paganini String Quartet
1960- 1970 London debut. Many USA tours as soloist with the Temianka Little Symphony; Performances with noted soloists, Mischa Elman, Salvatore Accardo, Christian Ferras; Concert tour of Greece; Appearances at the Meiringen (Switzerland) Festival; Member of the Sylvia Jenkins/William Corbett-Jones Piano Duo. Several tours in USA and Europe; Member of Alma Trio. Several tours in USA and Europe.
1970 Performed cycle of Beethoven Violin Sonatas with Andor Toth
1973 Performed cycle of Schubert Piano Sonatas
1974 Performed cycle of Beethoven Trios at University of Southern California
1975 Cycle of complete works of Beethoven for cello and piano with Laszlo Varga.
1977-79 Performed complete piano works of Mozart and cycle of five Chopin recitals
1980 Performed cycle of Schubert recitals; Performed as soloist with Maggio Musicale, Florence, Italy, under Kurt Masur.
1981-83 Performed all-Scarlatti, all-Brahms, and all-Schumann recitals Performed complete Piano Sonatas of Beethoven. (The above cycles were performed at SFSU, Santa Rosa Jr. College and Monterey Peninsula College.)
1983-84 Recital at Shanghai Conservatory of Music; Guest Professor at Taiwan National Academy of Arts, Taipei, Taiwan; Concert tours of Taiwan, the Philippines, including the Manila Philharmonic.
1987 Cycle of Complete Piano Music of Chopin
1990 Concert tour of Belgium with Pierre D’Archambeau, violinist.
1992 Guest Professor of LaSalle College of the Arts, Singapore. Many appearances in Singapore;
1993 Guest Professor at Sydney, Australia Conservatorium of Music. Performed many recitals in Australia.
1994-Present Many concerts in USA including recitals in Boston, New York City.