She was born Beula Duffey in Ottawa, Ontario. (She did not change her name to Johana Harris until her marriage at the age of 22.) Beula first demonstrated musical talent at the age of two when she sat at the piano and played tunes that she had heard on her grandmother's phonograph. Before long, her family realized that she had a perfect ear and excellent instincts for improvisation and composition.
Beula's parents, Claude and Laura Duffey, supported and encouraged their daughter's musical career. They enrolled Beula in the now defunct Canadian Conservatory of Music in Ottawa, where she took lessons first with Bertha LaVerde Worden, and then Harry Puddicombe. While at the Conservatory, the precocious seven-year-old participated with other pupils at a recital on February 22, 1922, performing pieces by Mendelssohn and Debussy, and also four of her own compositions. Beula graduated from the Conservatory at the extraordinary age of 11, in a class of women who were 18 or older.
Her first major performance occurred on June 13, 1925. Presented as "Ottawa's Wonder Child Pianiste," Beula performed a solo recital in the ballroom of the Chateau Laurier. Included on the program were works by Grieg, Chopin, Liszt, and one of her own compositions, "At Evening". A writer from the Ottawa Evening Journal reviewed the young pianist's first performance: "Confident, but unspoiled in her demeanour, undaunted in the least degree by the magnitude of her task, she presented an appearance that wafted her straight into the hearts of her audience, … where the soul is lacking no amount of musical instruction can place it there. Beula Duffey has the soul" (Bohuslawsky, 1998).
Shortly after her Ottawa debut, Beula moved with her family to New York to study with Ernest Hutcheson, the director of the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Before long, she began an intense performance schedule, giving recitals in Steinway Hall and in private homes.
At the age of 14, Beula was accepted to Juilliard's graduate program on a full scholarship. In addition to piano, she studied voice, composition, counterpoint, chamber music and literature. Upon completing her studies at the age of 17, she became a faculty member of Juilliard, the youngest in the history of the institution.
At this time, Beula began making the first of many radio appearances: "CBS Sunday" featured her performing two-piano concertos with her teacher Ernest Hutcheson on its evening broadcasts. This engagement lasted for two years.
When she was 20 years old, Beula was accepted to the Hochschule (University) in Berlin. She studied there for the next two years with scholarship funding. After graduating from the Hochschule, she returned to Juilliard to teach.
Beula was greatly admired for her talent, charm and beauty. Nicknamed the "Belle of Juilliard", she was petite -- 4'11" -- with light hair, blue eyes and a flair for fashion. In August 1935, at a garden party for Juilliard faculty, Beula met Roy Harris, an American composer who, after studying in Paris with renowned composition teacher Nadia Boulanger on a Guggenheim fellowship, embarked on a successful and prolific composing career in the United States.
Thirteen years older than Beula and already married, Harris had been teaching at Juilliard since 1932. During the summer of 1935, he and Beula taught an analysis course on "The Well-Tempered Clavier" by J.S. Bach; she performed the preludes and fugues for the class. Harris fell deeply in love with the charming young pianist, eventually divorced his wife, and pursued a romance with Beula. The couple eloped on October 10, 1936 in Union, Oregon.
After her marriage, Beula changed her name to Johana Harris. Her new husband disliked the name Beula, and, according to Nicolas Slonimsky, the author of Perfect Pitch, he chose to re-name her Johana "in reverence to [Johann Sebastian] Bach, the only composer whom Harris regarded as superior to himself. Harris was an amateur numerologist; his vital number was 5….To make the name of his bride divisible by 5, in alphabetical sequence, he dropped the second 'n' in Johanna" (Slonimsky, p. 246-7).