Claudio Arrau, J.S. Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach, piano technique

Piano Technique: Shaking out Bach Ornaments! and the influence of Claudio Arrau

When working on executing ornaments with an adult student as they appear in J.S. Bach’s Prelude in F minor, I thought instantly of Claudio Arrau’s allusions to “shaking” these out, without having a thread of tension in the arms, wrists, and hands. One of his biographers, Joseph Horowitz, profiled the pianist in an extensive interview that drew out many of the virtuoso’s ideas about technique, of which ornaments were a particular focus. (Conversations with Arrau)

A central aspect of Arrau’s playing is arm weight technique as taught to him my Martin Krause: “Relax and let loose, never be stiff of cramped in any joint. Krause even recommended that pianists should engage in sports.”

It was no surprise that I had for years integrated the whole arm, “shake” out recommendation as it permeated Arrau’s teaching, and related it to playing long trills. (in Mozart sonatas, concerti, etc.), and then through years of studying the Classical repertoire, along with Baroque and Romantic era compositions, I drew upon Arrau’s resonating quotes, to unkink my Bach ornaments, freeing them of tension.

Rather than dissect the physical ingredients of the SHAKE ’em out approach to ornaments as they appear in J.S. Bach’s F minor Prelude, BWV. 881, I decided to let a lesson video illustrate the main points.

P.S. As it happens, one of Arrau’s proteges via his assistant, Rafael De Silva, was Ena Bronstein, who perhaps influenced MY SHAKE IT OUT, FREE THROW, ARM LOOSE, WRIST SUPPLE, ORNAMENT GRAPPLE. She was my teacher in Fresno, California for about a year before relocating to Princeton, New Jersey.

The following sources contain Arrau’s ideas about piano technique:

Piano Lessons with Claudio Arrau: A Guide to his Philosophy and Techniques by Victoria A. Von Arx. A book preview is found via the link below.

By the same author from her Dissertation: The Teaching of Claudia Arrau and his Pupils: Piano Pedagogy as a Cultural Work (2006)

“Arrau explained relaxation as avoidance of stiffening within the joints that impair the body’s ability to move freely. Freedom of motion would allow the realization of musical impulse, the transmission of musical intentions through the body to the keyboard. The freer there body, the more the piano would be experienced as an extension of the player’s body, converting musical impulses into sound.”

Essentially Arrau “expressed the importance of experiencing mind and body as an integrated whole.” (There’s a substantial section on the maestro’s “Piano Technique” that’s easily accessed within the Von Arx Dissertation.)


Conversations with Arrau
Conversations with Arrau

Claudia Arrau, Ena Bronstein, Ena Bronstein Barton, Fresno California, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, Rafael de Silva, Rider University, Schumann Carnaval op. 9, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Westminster Conservatory of Music in Princeton New Jersey, word press, word, wordpress,, you tube, you tube video

My neighborhood piano teacher will return to Fresno to give a benefit concert! (Video)

It’s been well over 20 years since I sauntered just a few blocks over to West San Madele, a quaint street with manicured lawns and California ranch-style homes.

But one particular residence, with an adobe brick exterior, stood out because of its warm musical welcome mat. It promised entry into a magical space with a Yamaha grand taking up the lion’s share of a modest living room.

Ena Bronstein, “neighborhood piano teacher,” par excellence, drew students well beyond the boundaries of upscale Northwest Fresno. They came, young and old, to receive a touch of inspiration each week, returning to their private piano sanctuaries with a tad more motivation to practice the Masterworks.

For those of us who managed to find a spot on her teaching roster amidst a busy local and international concert schedule, we were further enriched by her Masterclasses that offered a rich serving of the pianist’s playing and commentary bundled into a divine gift.

Bronstein’s riveting performance of Schumann’s Carnaval sent me scampering home to embark upon my own Romantically imbued adventure. It was a journey assisted along by a great mentor with a bounty of wisdom to offer about piano and life.

A flashback 1981 performance excerpt from Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 exemplified Ena’s passion and towering technique:

As a teacher, Ena focused on the singing tone and how to produce it. She bestowed the physical ingredients of molto cantabile playing–how the rolling arm and wrist motions were embedded in phrasing and sculpted musical expression.

These were more than refinements that grew my own hands-on understanding of technique and opened doors to greater love and appreciation of the piano and its repertoire. From my two-year association with Maestra “Ena,” I gained so much for which words cannot amply express.

An Arrau protege, the artist passed along her mentor’s distinguished pianistic lineage and that of his assistant, Rafael de Silva to her many students who raced to the pianist’s local performances at every opportunity.

So for those of us who treasured our ongoing musical relationship with Ena, we were sad to be informed of her planned relocation to the culture-rich environs of Princeton, New Jersey. Yet, we knew that our loss would be the gain of students, colleagues, and new audience members on the East Coast.

Thankfully, after a decades-long hiatus, Ena will return to Fresno for a long-delayed reunion–one that surely promises to be this season’s peak cultural event.

I’ve already reserved my ticket.

About the recital:

“First Congregational Church of Fresno will present pianist, Ena Bronstein on Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 3 p.m. in a concert featuring Beethoven Sonata Op. 111 and works from Liszt and Debussy.

“Co-sponsored by the Fresno Free College Foundation, the performance will benefit the Casavant Pipe Organ Restoration Fund at the church.”


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.”


The Neighborhood Piano Teacher Lives On!