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Honoring my “neighborhood” piano teacher amidst melting degrees of separation

The Back Story:

After having spent about 30 years in hometown New York City, I emigrated to the agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley, California, planting myself and family in Fresno. This seemed to be a God forsaken place with excruciating heat (though dry). With its relentless air pollution; bad water from contaminated wells, and high incidence of allergies, Fresno made the ten worst cities to live in.

Yet a saving grace was Classical music station, KVPR, F.M. that survived budget cuts where two others died on the vine. Over time, however, the same show-stoppers, like the Van Suppe Overture were played ad nausea, while NEWS segments invaded too many intervals between cadences.

To its credit, Fresno had a Keyboard Concerts series founded by the late Philip Lorenz, an Arrau apostle. He brought glittering pianistic talent to the Central Valley. (Below, he’s pictured in 1969 with the celebrated pianist, and Ena Bronstein)

ena

Among featured performers on the Valley series, Philip’s ex-wife, Ena, made a lasting impression.

Her Schumann Carnaval was a recital centerpiece, further resonating into in her public masterclasses.

I was mesmerized!

Ena Bronstein lived in my “neighborhood”–4 easy walking blocks away on San Bruno, so naturally, I became her student for two music-loving years. To my grave disappointment, in the mid 80s, she relocated to Princeton, New Jersey with her new husband, leaving behind a trail of devoted pupils.

(Pardon this long-winded prelude that gives context to this writing about the “neighborhood” teacher and “melting degrees of separation.”)

It turns out that my newest adult student here in Berkeley where I relocated in 2012, traces back to Fresno and Ena Bronstein.

Her mother who had been Ena’s pupil, rekindled Valley memories in a substantial email about our common connection.

In fact, she had brought her baby, (my student) to a lesson at Ena’s home, which probably coincides with my having played in a Masterclass for Murray Perahia at Fresno State University. I was 9 months pregnant at the time, about to give birth at any moment. Ena had helped me prepare Beethoven’s “Tempest” for the class. A proponent of supple wrist, big arm motions, she freed so many of us from our tight, squeezed playing.

What a small world, I thought. The mother of my student has origins in Fresno, and her daughter who relocates to Berkeley meets up with me, a “neighborhood” teacher, carrying on the tradition. (A transcendent transfer of knowledge and philosophy through generations)

As icing on the cake, I’m compelled to memorialize Ena Bronstein’s Fresno reunion recital in the following encore tribute.

Virtuosity and Poetry in Motion hallmark Ena Bronstein’s musical return to Fresno

Mister Rogers would have welcomed Ena Bronstein back to the “neighborhood” that she left over 25 years ago. He’d say that she planned to honor her friends, former neighbors, and piano students by giving them a very special reunion concert wrapped in love and caring.

And so it happened that our Fresno “neighborhood” piano teacher who had emigrated to the East Coast, returned “home” to her roots to bestow a musical gift that left an indelible memory.

***

With my video camera mounted on a delicate tripod, I wound my way to the balcony of First Congregational Church, finding a snug space, keyboard-side for my film landing. From this vantage point, I could zoom in on a 9-foot grand that was pea-size to the naked eye.

It evoked my childhood seat in Carnegie Hall’s last row– with its dizzying gaze upon a stage that hosted Ashkenazy, Richter and Gilels. Their delicate pianissimos were melted pin drops of musical pleasure.

Ena, too, would feed the soul of listeners at the Old Red Church on Van Ness with an expressive palette of tonal colors and textures, framed and styled for each of three composers: Liszt, Debussy and Beethoven.

From the very first silky sound emanating from a well cared for piano, she riveted her audience to every nuance, sculpted phrase, and expressive possibility of all programmed works. It was playing permeated by seasoned maturity, finesse, mood painting and heightened expression. (For students learning about the unity of physical movement with fluid, emotional musical expression, Ena’s supple wrist and flowing, relaxed arms were exemplary models)

An excerpt from Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Etudes

In the culminating Beethoven Sonata, op. 111 the artist left us in spellbound silence at the last fading cadence, needing no encore to disturb a purity of contemplation.

I barely held back tears.

***

Ena celebrated the birthdays of Liszt and Debussy in a personalized performer to audience soliloquy, then continued to play her heart out.

Pour Le Piano: Debussy Toccata

Prelude: Voiles (with my photo seascapes along the Bay)

For her generosity, and singular benefit performance to restore the Church’s Casavant pipe organ, she was rewarded by large servings of love that circulated through the reception area following her concert. I was one of many former students who begged for a photo with her:

As an added dessert, I was granted a brief interview with my “neighborhood” piano teacher who, despite her farewell decades ago, will always have an eternal presence in my life and those of others she touched in a unique way.

Ena, please come back home again, soon!

PROGRAM

From 12 Etudes Transcendantales
Harmonies du soir Liszt

Preludes – Voiles Debussy
Feux d’artifice

Etudes – pour les Arpeges composes Debussy
pour les Degres chromatiques

Pour le Piano
Debussy
Prelude
Sarabande
Toccata

Intermission

Sonata Op.111 Beethoven

Maestoso – Allegro con brio ed appassionato
Arietta – Adagio molto, semplice e cantabile

BIO:

Ena Bronstein-Barton Bio:

http://www.rider.edu/faculty/ena-bronstein-barton

“Born in Santiago, Chile, pianist Ena Bronstein Barton began her career in South America, touring her native continent. After winning a national piano competition she traveled to New York to study with Claudio Arrau and Rafael de Silva. Her New York debut at Town Hall was received with critical acclaim. Since then, Ms. Barton’s career has taken her across the United States, back to South America, to Europe, the Near and Far East, Australia and New Zealand. Among her engagements abroad was an extended tour of Israel and Europe, highlighted by performances as soloist with orchestras in Jerusalem, Luxembourg and Rome.

“Ms. Barton has received many honors throughout her career, including an invitation to attend the Casals Festival, a 1976 Martha Baird Rockefeller Grant which resulted in a solo recital at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, and the 1996 Distinguished Artists Piano Award by Artists International. Her chamber music performances have included appearances with violinist Jaime Laredo and the Guarneri Quartet.

“Ms. Barton taught at California State University-Fresno for 13 years. She was artist-in-residence at Monterey Peninsula College in California and has conducted master classes at the University of Veracruz in Xalapa, Mexico, and in Santiago.

“Recently she gave a recital and master class as part of the centennial celebration of Claudio Arrau’s birthday being held in New York City at the Greenwich House Music School.

“Currently, Ms. Barton is head of the piano department at the Westminster Conservatory of Music, the college’s community music school. She is also a member of the piano faculty of Westminster Choir College of Rider University.”

Links:


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/my-neighborhood-piano-teacher-will-return-to-fresno-for-a-benefit-concert-video/

Donald Munro’s Fresno Bee interview with Ena Bronstein:

http://www.fresnobee.com/2012/04/26/2815277/pianist-ena-bronstein-returns.html#storylink=misearch#storylink=cpy

The Neighorhood Teacher Lives On:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/the-neighborhood-piano-teacher-lives-on/

Shrinking Degrees of Separation in the Music World

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/12/26/shrinking-degrees-of-separation-in-the-music-world/

Andreas Werz, classissima, classissima.com, Daniil Trifonov, Daniil Trifonov piano recital in Fresno California, Fresno State Recital Hall, Fresno State University, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts, pianist, piano, piano addict, piano blog, piano playing, Piano Street, Piano World, piano world-wide, practicing a piece in 7 different emotions, practicing piano with relaxation, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, supple wrist in piano playing, teaching piano to adults, The art of phrasing at the piano, the art of piano pedaling, The Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv, whole body music listening, word press, word press.com, wordpress, wordpress.com, you tube, you tube video

Bonus post-concert Video Footage: Daniil Trifonov Interview, Fresno, California

In supplementary video footage, Trifonov discussed the role of “relaxation,” and physical “freedom” in beautiful music-making. He reiterated a practicing modality where a pianist plays a composition in “seven different emotions.”

One of my adult students and her husband joined me during the post-recital interview that took place in the private Fresno State University music studio of Professor Andreas Werz, Artistic Director, Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts.

Thanks once again to Andreas, Daniil, and Aviva Kirsten (video assistant) for making this interview flow smoothly.

Related Link:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/daniil-trifonov-pianist-shares-his-artistry-and-imparts-musical-wisdom-in-a-post-concert-interview-in-fresno-california-video/

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Private Piano Teaching: A Hobby or Profession?

More swept under the rug issues related to piano teaching… hush hush.. Don’t tread on sacred ground. Would I dare to blog about a Piano World post that bemoaned the plight of private piano teachers as hobbyists– not hard-working, dedicated professionals. I might agree with some but not all of what I read on the Forum, but could I straddle both sides, and sit in a gray middle area? I didn’t think so.

Dozing off on Amtrak 712, journeying from the Bay area to Fresno, I was already thinking about my next blog. Perhaps it was too soon to get controversial–to stray from the information highway. “A Piano Teacher’s Worst Nightmare!” had been a Word Press shocker but it hit home like a ton of bricks. Secret, middle of the night thank you’s from piano teachers around the country found their way to the Comments section with a promise not to publish. Many of these teachers felt ragged out, unappreciated, and in some cases abused. Some drafted their own Codes of Behavior that copied my own.

By the same token, I had also heard from colleagues who regaled the profession and never felt more applauded for their efforts. They were Ego Syntonic–at peace with their students and the musical environment they had nurtured over years, if not decades.

So there. Two sides of the same coin–one just as valid as the other.

But back to the “hobby” vs. “profession” issue.

For many of us, our activity was home based, which could breed informality. Might it be better to teach in a community college or university that set aside cubicles named for us, with fancy bulletin boards attached, validating our professional status?

Swishing down the hallways of the Fresno State Music Building at MTAC Celebration Festival time, I couldn’t help but feel envious of music instructors who were on contract, had paid vacation, sick leave, and decent pensions. Such perks spelled RESPECT–and you could kick in the reality of prepaid registrations and tuition that made student absences a moot point.

We private teachers wouldn’t enjoy anything approaching. We sometimes lived on the edge.

I thought about situations in my studio and those of others, that had more than a sniff of taking our services for granted, but being exceptions to the rule, we weren’t ready to raise up the white flag of surrender. It was mostly a joyful, unencumbered journey.

In my case, a few adult students had become my “friends” over a period of years, making it harder for me to abide by my professional studio policies. And ultimately, it came out in the wash, when one or two wanted to vanish for a few months, and come back fresh and easy. Not like the supermarket with all the good stuff. These pupils wanted to disappear mid-year without a trace of themselves for far too long to make any real musical “progress.” And they would return on their own clock not having thought about payment for their stretches of absence. More informality about attendance, an issue that I should have addressed more decisively when I formulated my Policy statement at the very start. (Please, everyone, sign on the dotted line)

I was beginning to agree with the Piano World Poster when he suggested that some teachers were acting in such a permissive way as to undermine the “profession.” He kicked in the fee issue as well, saying that those of us who under-charged fueled his “hobby” assertion.

How could I respond without implicating myself. Well, for one thing, not all hobbies were to be taken with a grain of salt. If a hobby was pursued with passion and intensity, why invalidate it?

Now what would most psychologists say about my response? It definitely skirted the issue—I was using plain old denial.

If a “hobby” was an unpaid activity, Mr. Piano World poster was probably right ON THE MONEY, saying that we “professionals” were being short changed. (pun intended) And it was due to our ENABLING nature.

But the fee issue was something many of us could argue about. The economy dictated more than a grain of flexibility in these hard times. Not every piano teacher could charge what they felt they were worth given inflation, gas prices and rest. If we did, we might be without a profession or hobby to boot.

So where would we go from here to resolve the Great Debate?

I had learned my lesson the hard way–making mistakes I had to amend, but I objected to any Internet Forum poster blaming his colleagues for perceptions that were not easy to change in the universe of students and parents. None of us could be Atlas shouldering the world’s burdens.

Maybe, in the last analysis, we needed some kind of arbitration machinery, or better yet, a union with collective bargaining rights. But that could never happen because we were independent contractors.

So for now, I would be comfortable with my “professional” identity, knowing that a few individuals might test limits and boundaries. In that event, I would take it one situation at a time and not generalize about a whole population of students.

Most psychologists would validate my mantra, saying that what counted most was how we felt about ourselves. No one could in reality take away our professional identity unless we allowed it.

RELATED:
A Piano Teacher’s Worst Nightmare!

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/a-piano-teachers-worst-nightmare/

Pulls and Tugs: Two sides of the student/teacher piano lesson relationship

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/pulls-and-tugs-two-sides-to-the-studentteacher-piano-lesson-relationship/

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The Big Baroque Festival!

I cleared most of my Saturday morning lessons so I could be on time for a special rehearsal at Fresno State. I took no chances given the steady rain these past few days that caused dangerously deep puddles along Shaw Avenue. The inevitable flow of traffic to crowd-jamming Bulldog games would also be a time delayer. (What season were we in?) My ignorance reminded me of the time I inadvertently scheduled a student recital on Superbowl Sunday. I had booked Northwest Chapel well in advance for a particular weekend afternoon, and naturally a specific Sunday in February was the only one available. Not a mystery with all the sports hoopla engulfing the city of Fresno. Since a pile of tailgate parties had to be canceled on account of my recital, the inconvenience cost me 4 students. And by coincidence, these kids all lived on the BLUFFS, a pseudo wealthy northwest enclave where homes overlooked a custom contrived pasture. (I noticed similar landscapes along my weekly train route to the Bay) It appeared that almost every city had set aside acres for panoramic views of a deep, expansive ditch decorated with trees, a few roaming horses, and some wild dogs chasing a few rodents that needed easy disposal) Here in Fresno there had been a fever pitch rush to buy such properties on the newly fabricated hills back in the late 80’s. (But I often wondered if the people hawking these houses, realized that a chugging, whistle blowing train would whiz by at frequent intervals, turning their dream homes into railroad flats)

***

Despite the fact that these Bluffs parents were put off by my recital scheduling on the day of a mega sports event, they still managed to show up for their kiddies’ concert with a variety of television hook-ups. Since iPhones had not yet arrived, I wished I had brought my camcorder to videotape some of the instant replay videotaping going on. No joke. The unpleasant distractions virtually ruined all of my students’ performances.

***

Flash forward: Thank God, today’s musical event at the university didn’t compete with football mania. (I happily reminded myself that the Superbowl came and went)

A high brow Baroque Festival sponsored by the Music Teachers Association of California had been planned in the afternoon, and one of my ten-year old students eagerly participated. The event had a competitive edge because only 1/3 of the entrants would be selected to go on to the Regional recital. In simple terms, those who were picked in this round by two esteemed out of town judges, would play in March at an Honors performance. It came with a Certificate of recognition and a handsome medallion. Not exactly an Olympic event, but for some keyed up students, it was a good comparison.

For starters, at 11:30 a.m. my student and I met at the concert hall to test out the stage piano.

Just last week, I had nearly died, thinking I missed my student’s run through, because a mistake was made in the announcement put out by the local music teachers association. Or maybe it was last year’s flier that got sandwiched into my branch’s Yearbook with an erroneous date of 2011 instead of 2010. Naturally, with the old dating, the February Festival would have been past history along with me.

What a relief to have come back from hell this week with another shot at being this kid’s teacher. Close call.

Today this very talented youngster performed two Bach Inventions weeks after she had appeared faceless on You Tube demonstrating her technical prowess. With only her HANDS on camera, she was put through grueling technical paces, playing every scale and arpeggio known to mankind. A bit of an exaggeration, but used to give her credit for hanging in there with a camcorder gaping over her shoulder.

Here’s a snatch of her anonymously rendered keyboard agility:

(Note that one of the pianos on video was waiting for a tuning, while the other had just received one. Hence, the warbling between them.)

In any event, the formerly invisible student, finally emerged with a face attached to her name, along with an assigned number that followed her to the Walberg concert hall stage that was equipped with a 9 foot size Yamaha.

Incidentally, last year I had learned a mighty lesson about Festival pianos and warming up. Mistakenly, I permitted a student to practice on a small upright piano in one of the university’s cubicles after she had tried out the concert hall’s concert grand. The diminutive practice size instrument had a very light action by comparison to the house piano’s resistant touch, so when my pupil played the first few notes of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata on stage, they totally disappeared. Naturally, she was caught by surprise and remembered the most recent piano she had tried. Live and learn.

The atmosphere at today’s Festival, or COMPETITION, was superficially low keyed. Everyone was supposed to be celebrating the age of the Baroque without a second thought, and I guess I should have joined in the fireworks, or the candle lighting ceremony but neither took place.

In preparation for the ordeal, or golden opportunity, however one wanted to spin it, I gave my student a copy of Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney Chase and told her to meditate over several selected, underlined passages.

I made sure to recommend my favorite mantra:
“To be a pianist, in one sense of the word, is to think that a daddy long legs on the window sill is dancing to your playing; it is to think that the breeze came through the window just to talk to your music; it is to feel that one phrase loves another; it is to think that the tree is a teacher of the tranquility you need in your playing. It is to know a loneliness crowded with the beautiful as you play.”

These words had worked like magic with another student who had made it to the Regional recital two years ago. In honor of her sterling playing, I had framed a picture of her holding a Certificate and wearing the medallion. But by far the truest memento of her 2009 Baroque Festival appearance, was a DVD that captured a portion of her “live” performance.

Here’s the c minor fugue from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, Book I coming from Fresno State University’s concert hall. (excuse the raw footage with some sound irregularities)

PS An in depth documentary is in progress about what transpired at the MTAC sponsored Baroque Festival. In the meantime, winners will be alerted by email on Sunday Feb. 20, 2011 so the suspense is killing most of the participants.