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Mirrors and piano playing

As we age, we’re reluctant to look at our reflection in the mirror, but as we grow over time as musicians, the mirror of our playing in recorded “reflections” can foster quality adjustments in phrasing and interpretation.

If we nudge ourselves to step back and be “objective” about what we’re hearing, we may try to amend our next playing so it’s not a static, unaltered repeat of the last.

When I observe my own false starts, phrase imbalances, thumb pokes, and breath-short measures, I aim to improve these shortcomings by studying physical and musical dimensions that must be intertwined and synthesized.


In a separate but related universe, Alfred Brendel, renowned pianist, puts a negative spin on the “finished” recording, while his comments upon careful scrutiny, support the self-educational value of making longitudinal student recordings. (While these exist in an “unfinished” form, being raw and home-based, they still have significant redeeming value)

In the following abridged paragraph of his newly released book, Music, Sense and Nonsense, the celebrated pianist bemoans the “impalement” by the public of renderings that permanently emblematize player. Yet amidst a string of professionally recorded efforts, Brendel appreciates an evolution of artistry that ripens over time– permeated by modified creative perceptions.

“But a recording is… simply the fixing of a moment.. so the artist should have the right to identify his work within a certain phase of his development… (And) it is only the continuous renewal of his vision – either in the form of evolution or of rediscovery – that can keep his music-making young.”

The last sentence fits perfectly into the paradigm of enlisting recordings to illuminate a particular developmental phase and to move it along to the next with sensitive adjustments and acquired awakenings. These flow through an artistically dynamic chain of youth-preserving efforts that should draw students toward recorded reflections of their playing, not away from them.

For piano teachers who evolve beside their students in a comparable growth process, home-created recordings can mirror efforts that are undergoing constant refinement without their needing “fixed” deadline arrivals, or contrived makeovers to mimic youth appeal that has no depth or substance. (i.e. fast and furious top-layer playing without thought, emotion or REFLECTION.)

As a footnote to this discussion on the value of recordings in the learning environment, I offer a Student/Mentor mirrored-back lesson sample. (In teaching this Bach Invention repetitively, I will, no doubt, alter my ideas in consonance with an ever-changing process embedded in refined artistic illumination. The same metamorphoses will apply to the student.)

J.S.Bach Invention 13 in A minor:


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A common chorus among adult piano students

Marie and Aiden

As decades pass, and each adult piano student on his personal journey chimes in with a greeting at the start of a lesson, I’ve noticed a synchronized choir of commonly expressed thoughts.

The riveting idée fixe that resonates LIVE and through SKYPE channels, is like the redundant motif of Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique.

“I really want to PLEASE you,” I hear times over, maybe even a few hundred if proliferated over a good span of teaching.

Quickly, I think on my feet. What is this about? Is the pupil here to please me, or to take a common journey with me on an equal footing?

My interest in this universe of musical growth and development makes me ponder responses that seem weighted down by early childhood experiences.

Many adults, I have come to learn, were saturated with a Right and Wrong way to play the piano.

It might have started with a vigilant parent who stood over them, counting note blunders, registering keen disapproval.

A stickler for PERFECTION, an overseeing, supervising mom, likely grunted in rhythm with the neighborhood piano teacher who demanded pleasure upon hearing the flavor of the week piece.

She otherwise abhorred a crowd of clunkers to final cadence. Piano pieces were in rapid turnover like licked down lollipops.

But why was perfection the all in one, ace-in-a-hole goal when the PROCESS, not the destination was far more important.

After so many years of hearing victims of this indoctrination perpetuate a self-punishing tradition, I found myself plowing through the wreckage, trying to steer everyone into a happy and healthy safety zone.

My declarations bundled in affirmation followed:

There is no need to please the teacher, but rather to PLEASE oneself.

Or perhaps, PLEASE should be replaced with I want to enjoy learning in its many facets, knowing that progress comes in spurts, not as a linear, forward movement. (When first learning to walk, for example, slips and falls did not attach value judgments), and crawling was an accepted stage of growth without a nod of disapproval.

In this regard, looking over the fence at every other adult taking piano– using a measuring rod to compare rates of advance is meaningless, and a waste of energy.

So I will shift my eyes and ears to the keyboard and savor each day that I make contact with something BIGGER than me, a gift I must cradle.

Finally, from the perspective of a piano teacher who is NOT a high priestess sitting above a congregation of love-starved students, I say,

While imparted pats on the back are part and parcel of human interaction, they should not be sought after as ENDS to mark out the ONLY POSITIVE junctures of piano study.

Instead, cleanse the environment by striking “success,” “please,” “good and bad lessons” from the vocabulary.

Meditate on,

Music is about enriching one’s life with beauty, and having a partner mentor who leads and follows in a harmonious pursuit of what is largely intangible but still a miracle of creation.

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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)


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!


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


Sonata Op.111 Beethoven

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


Ena Bronstein-Barton Bio:

“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.”


Donald Munro’s Fresno Bee interview with Ena Bronstein:

The Neighorhood Teacher Lives On:

Shrinking Degrees of Separation in the Music World

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Tchaikovsky’s “Harmonica Player” fits snugly between a Song and Dance

When I first stumbled upon “The Harmonic Player,” No. 12, from Tchaikovsky’s Op. 39 Children’s Album, my first thought was, “Why on earth did the great composer include such tirelessly redundant music with an unimaginative harmonic scheme and belabored melody.” For certain, as a stand-alone, it could be easily passed over— dismissed as a throwaway piece, among a list of twenty-three more highly prized musical gems.

Ironically, Program Notes surrounding “The Harmonica Player” reveal a Russian man tinkering with a small accordion (not a harmonica). He practices in a begrudgingly methodical way and then wanders off into the distance to his own choir of unresolved Dominant seventh chords. Great ending, eh?

But don’t fret–“The Harmonica Player” is dragged out of his tedious drone by a feisty folkloric Dance that follows. “Kamarinskaya” (No. 13) sweeps up the dying F-A-C-Eb Dominant 7ths, resuscitating them in an ear-grabbing transition to D Major in celebrational STACCATO!!

Without doubt, Tchaikovsky was very clever in his overall musical menu planning. He preceded the accordionist with a very singable, “Russian Song,” (No. 11) that spilled so naturally from F Major to the street musician’s flat lined Bb Major. (The F Major key is the Dominant of the player’s lament)

Finally, the progression of THREE tableaux shows a remarkable sequence of keys tied to a variety of moods: F Major to Bb Major to D Major.



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Should a piano student be a carbon copy of the teacher?

The whole universe of music teaching and learning became crystallized when I found myself bouncing ideas back and forth with two parents of Suzuki-trained children on a blog COMMENTS forum.

First, I questioned the purist form of the Japanese imported “method” to the piano that delays note-reading to conform with the acquisition of language. Babies, for instance don’t learn to write until years after “speaking” the mother tongue.

But as they move right along to Kindergarten, letters and other symbols enter consciousness, and phonetics progresses to letter groupings, words, sentences, etc.

In the musical realm, there are differing opinions on what age is best to start a child on individualized piano study. The Suzuki followers often begin teaching a fledgling as young as 3 if not younger. Naturally, at that age, reading music is hardly expected.

According to parents who are pleased with the program, they regale the efforts of toddlers who listen to their teachers and copy what she plays.. they insist, without looking at their mentor’s fingers on the keys. (though fingering decisions are pivotal to good phrasing)

This is supposed to be ear training–or more specifically, “playing by ear.”

If this continues for years at a time, perhaps the child will have an ability to hear a tune, and play it back with a minimum of note errors. But what’s next?
And what’s the content of his playing from an interpretive dimension?

Let’s fast forward the clock to a 9-year old, “copying” the teacher week after week, month and after month, etc. and let’s say he’s playing a J.S. Bach Minuet. Whom does he sound like.. himself or an imported version of his teacher? Is he reading the music, looking at harmonic progressions and their influence on phrasing/nuance? Is he analyzing the form of his piece, etc. or still copying the authority figure without a second thought.

I believe a piano student grows over the years with a teacher who tries to imbue a sense of independence in the creative learning process. She takes baby steps with the pupil, but doesn’t leave him tied to her apron strings.

Here’s an exemplary lesson with a 9-year old student where she combines the tactile experience of playing, with singing, and analyzing the music under my guidance. (Gillock’s “Stars on a Summer Night.”)

With adult students, the goal is likewise to nurture them along so their practicing becomes the prototype for musical growth in the long term–and they can feel confident to have landmarks for learning independently.

How is this best done? Singing phrases with the student helps as he looks at the score while he plays– singing helps contour phrases. The greatest teachers like Boris Berman, for example, conspicuously sing and conduct during their public masterclasses with highly gifted pupils. (Fingering choices also need to be discussed)

Choreographing the music as a conductor does with physical gestures in front of an orchestra helps a student shape a musical line.

But why deny the student, his own ideas about how to craft phrases? Certainly over years, that should be a process that unfolds, not leaving a student in the dark, groveling always to copy the teacher.

Here’s an example of a very fine pianist, who tends to push the student off the piano bench to copy her. And while I love the mentor’s playing, I feel the pupil should explore a bit more on her own, with necessary teacher prompts.

Contrast this to my working with an adult student on Mozart’s Andante movement of Sonata k. 545. As a preliminary, we had discussed the composition’s harmonic flow and its influence on phrasing and eventually on pedaling when she was ready to add it.

So going back to the original theme of this writing, I don’t favor a so-called method or approach that makes a student a carbon copy of his/her teacher. (especially when note-reading is absent or not specifically required in a course of piano study–adhering to the “playing by ear model”)

A reminder that the score is a reference that should be the point of departure in the long-term growth of a student’s artistry and love for music. This allows a joyous interchange with the infused elements of learning previously discussed.


The Right Age to Start Piano Lessons?