Piano Lessons with Claudio Arrau:
A Guide to his Philosophy and
Victoria von Arx
The recorded lessons
Piano Lessons with Claudio Arrau: A Guide to His
Philosophy and Techniques includes transcriptions
of five piano lessons that were given by Arrau.
The students who took these lessons taperecorded them for their own use sometime during
the 1960s. The tapes added up to approximately 18
hours of playing time. They included:
three private lessons given in Spanish to Mario Miranda,
a pianist from Chile;
two lessons in a master class setting were given in
English to Bennett Lerner, an American.
Transcribing the lessons
Transcribing a piano lesson into written words involves special challenges. In
a speech or lecture, information comes primarily from the spoken word.
Transcribing a verbal communication is a matter of getting the words down. In a
piano lesson, communication takes place partially through words; but in addition,
there are meaningful gestures, both on the part of the teacher and the student,
that convey something about the expressive or technical elements of piano
playing. Unfortunately, body language is not visible in a sound recording; yet, with
a knowledge of elements of Arrau’s technical principles, one might try sometimes
to infer its presence and meaning.
Arrau also used various vocal inflections and non-verbal vocalizations that
might be termed “piano teacher singing” to convey his thoughts. Sometimes his
singing communicated a musical point different from the one he was conveying in
words. Capturing Arrau’s meaning is a matter of capturing such things as
inflection, choice of vowel sound, and articulation of consonants.
Finally, because both Arrau and his student could see plainly what they were
doing, they sometimes did not bother to finish their sentences. The challenge in
such cases was to use context and the sounds coming from the piano to create a
coherent account of words that appear quite fragmentary.
Correlating text and music
Each of Arrau’s comments in these lessons had to be connected
with the musical passage that it referred to. Since both Arrau and his
student had scores in front of them, they did not identify passages by
measure number. They could simply point out the passages in the
musical score. A listener to the tape recording could locate the
relevant passages quite easily if each was played immediately after
Arrau spoke about it.
At times, however, Arrau gave more extended comments dealing
with several different passages in succession, or he skipped backwards
and forwards among different passages within the piece. If the student
simply listened to the comments without playing the passages they
referred to, the passages were difficult to locate. In some cases, Arrau
provided clues to finding them by singing some part of passages he
was commenting on.
Transcribing lessons given in Spanish
Transcribing the three lessons in Spanish was an even more complex matter. The
sound quality in these tapes was generally quite degraded so that some parts were
Arrau and Mario Miranda seemed on quite familiar and friendly terms. They
tended to finish each other’s sentences, and frequently both talked at once or over
the sound of the piano. Although this was likely perfectly clear to them, the tape
recorder microphone made no sense of it. For a later listener, meaning had to be
discovered from the larger discussion, rather than from individual statements, and
from evidence provided by the piano playing, which sometimes offered contrasting or
differing performances of the same passage.
Although Arrau was born in Chile, he grew up and was educated in Germany.
Therefore, both Spanish and German were natural to him. He was a proficient English
speaker and also seemed to have some competency in French and Italian. But as a
result, his speech in a lesson given in one language might include stray bits of the
others. At times, when he could not think of a word he wanted, Arrau invented one.
Transcribing and translating these unexpected and colorful linguistic devices requires a
certain amount of detection.
Chopin Ballade in F major, Op. 38
Claudio Arrau and Mario Miranda
Chopin: Ballade no. 2, Op. 38 mm. 51-52.
Miranda plays the first, then the first two octaves in the left hand, m. 51.
CA: Haber haz. No. Ahí tienes que tomar el quatro, cinco, cuatro.
Let’s see. No. There you have to take four-five-four.
Miranda plays m. 51, A E G# B, repeating some notes several times in succession.
CA: Puedes con el tercero, o no?
Can you do it with the third [finger], or not?
MM: Hacer en SOL sostenido? [G-sharp]
Do it on G-sharp?
CA. Sí.
MM: Ah.
Miranda begins playing the octaves [A] as Arrau speaks over the piano.
CA: Y después entonces viene el problema, [G-sharp] caer [G-sharp, B] en el quinto, [B] eso es, y [G-sharp, B] después [A] cuarto y quinto otra vez.
And then comes the problem [G-sharp] of falling [G-sharp, B] into the fifth [B], that’s it, and [G-sharp, B] then [A] the fourth and fifth again.
Arrau and Miranda decide the rest of the fingering.
MM: [Playing octaves B, A, m. 51 b. 4-5], quinto, quarto.
Five, four.
CA: [Reciting finger numbers as Mario slowly places the remaining octaves, m. 51-52] Quarto , quinto , quarto , quinto , quarto , quinto , quarto.
Four, five, four, five, four, five, four.
CA: Y tenemos un saco de arena en el teclado. Que lo que me da miedo, te lo he dicho muchas veces. Aquí más que nunca, si suena TAC TAC TAC, es horrible eso. Suena brutal y es
muy feo. Una linea melodica!
And we have a bag of sand on the keyboard. What I’m afraid of, I have told your many times. Here more than ever, if it sounds TAC TAC TAC, it is horrible like that. It sounds brutal
and very ugly. [It should be] A melodic line!
MM: Contrabajo
Contrabass [Singing the left hand passage.]
CA: Con esos, cincuenta contrabajos.
With those, fifty contrabasses.

Piano Lessons with Claudio Arrau: A Guide to his Philosophy and