Preludes set the musical tone of an event be it a wedding, church service or a concert.  But what is not known to most people is that n the baroque era, around 1700,  a keyboard soloist would play a prelude while the audience was settling down, i.e. before the program of the concert actually started.  While patrons were still finding their seats, keyboard player would improvise flashy runs and passages on the spot.  The audience marvel at his talent thus peeking their interest in the concert.


The prelude gave the performer the opportunity  to check:

  1. The acoustics of the room and
  2. The resonance of the instrument. Thus, if the instrument had short sustaining power, he would play trills and tremolos faster.
  3. And that he had to play slow pieces at a faster tempo.
  4. The Prelude also served the purpose of allowing the performer to judge the action or response of the keys.

If the acoustics of the room were dead, the soloist would quicken the tempo. If the acoustics were  live, he would observe slower markings. In effect the soloist did the sound check; thus acting like a modern day sound engineer. If my reader would like to know more about what performers did before electrical sound engineering I recommend reading  Francois Couperin (1668-1733) in his L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin , published in 1716.

Francois Couperin author of  L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin 


For years, I’ve kept a log of my piano practice and still do.  The Preludes by Chopin are regular part of my warm ups. I choose three. The first emphasizes work with the right hand. The second emphasizes the left. The third works both hands equally. Chopin was a great fan of Johann Sebastian Bach.  In writing his Preludes, Chopin chose Bach for the model. As Bach wrote preludes in all the key signatures, so did Chopin. Chopin’s 1st Prelude is a stylistic copy of Bach’s 1st Prelude in Book I of the Well Tempered Clavichord. Both hands interlock in the continuous motion of 16th notes.  Chopin, however, gives this prelude beautiful melodic import. This characterizes his then newer style of writing music.


For centuries, preludes were written as absolute music. Absolute music is defined as music that is meant to be free of any extra musical implications.  As absolute music, preludes were simply intended to be played as an introduction to a longer work. That was it.  In his preludes Debussy changes tradition in a humorous manner. He numbers each Prelude with Roman numerals on the title page. Innocent enough.  However according to the Paris edition by Durand et Cie. copyright 1910, he broke the tradition.What he did reminds me the surprise toy that we used to find in boxes of Cracker Jacks. At the very end of each Prelude, he zings you with a descriptive title! Thus, for example when we play Prelude X, we think that that is all we are playing.  But at the bottom of the last page,  we learn that we have really been playing, La Cathedrale engloutie  (The engulfed or sunken Cathedral). I know that Debussy had fun with this intentional reversal.


I’ve been practicing to make a recording of 60 minutes of Debussy’s music. What a task! He was  a first place award winning concert pianist. That fact together with his avowed goal of braking all previous rules as much as possible makes him very difficult to play. His rule breaking, I must admit, is always in good taste.  My teacher, Mischa Kottler, who studied in Paris and Vienna in the 1920’s (see blog) wanted me, with one of his last wishes, to give a Debussy concert. I have upped my practicing for this purpose.  I’m finding out that 3.5 hours daily is not enough. I’ll have to up it even more; or, it will not happen. Keep watching for my hour on the web site of recorded Debussy. I’m determined.

440 is Used for Tuning

440 is used for tuning  primarily in America and England in terms of vibrations per second for the note “A” above middle “C”. When my youngest son, Abe, was just over two years old, his favorite expression was a number- “440”: As we tried to teach him to tell time, he’d always insist that it was 4:40 no matter what we told him that the time was. You might ask, “So what; why is that significant?” That number is the cornerstone of the builders of ancient civilizations. I feel that mind of Abe was used, at that time, as a conduit for forgotten wisdom. As a result, I have pursued trying to understand the number; and how and where it was used, and where it came from for some 35 years. The quest literally turned me into a philosopher, as expressed by the hit song from the Broadway show, Man of La Mancha (1965-  lyrics by Joe Darion and music by Mitch Leigh). The hit song is entitled The Impossible Dream, and subtitled subtitled, The Quest.  Even Liberace would often feature it as his eleven o’clock number at his piano concerts. The famous line states: This is my quest, to follow that star, No matter how hopeless, No matter how far.


The search for that star took our entire family to the Catskill Mountains in New York where I became the house piano player at Scott’s Oquaga Lake House in Deposit, New York. The year was  1983. I think that Oquaga Lake has an immense spirituality about it; and it was there that I found the answer to the 440 question. Of course, Abe, our 440 baby, was right there with us. When the source of the number came into my mind , we were living at Bluestone Farm on Bluestone Mountain right next to Scott’s Hotel.  Students of archaeology know that the Stonehenge was built of bluestone rock; and to my knowledge, in America this tiny area is the only place where this rock is found. The Scotts quarry just is up the hill from Bluestone Farm.  Deposit bluestone is extremely desirable around the country for mantles and fireplaces. The stone is so plentiful on Bluestone Mountain that when my daughter, years later,  got married at Scotts Oquaga Lake House; we wrote the names of all the guests with magic marker on flat, little pieces of bluestone to indicate assigned seating.  Every one said the wedding was magical. From the picture below, you can see that it was the enchanted land of Scotts that gave it that aura.  As my quest for a fuller realization of the mystery of 440 has taken me over 35 years,  it will take many blogs to reveal the treasure it holds. Keep watching.

440, as a number,  is not only used for tuning, but also as a number of measurement in the appropriate unit of measure of ancient sites like (1) The length of a city block of the Harappan civilization in the Indus valley  (2) The foundation of Troy in Turkey (3) The foundation of the temple  at Karnak in Egypt  (4) The Great mound in Cahokia in southern Illinois. (5) The Great Circle in Newark Ohio built by the Hopewell culture (6) The foundation of Persepolis in Iran  (7) The Akapana in Mexico (8) Solomon’s Temple (9) The Great Pyramid of Egypt…….all around the planet.   In the meanwhile, stay tuned for more blogs.  And when you visit with the Scotts, ask for a guided tour of  Bluestone Mountain.



The incredible beauty of Oquaga Lake where I found the answers to many of life’s questions. My poetry is a tribute to its beauty; and   Of Fog and Spirits, below, describes this very scene (excerpt from The Oquaga Spirit Speaks)


Fingers of fog moving quickly,

Gliding across the lake…

Almost at jogging speed-

Leaving no apparent wake.

    Why are they scampering about

At this early morning time?

    Thousands of fingers in motion

     Moving gracefully with rhyme.

Perhaps each one is a spirit

                    Released from the depths of the spring,

    Enjoying an hour of freedom,

Almost ready to take wing?

              This spring fed lake is enchanted

As such water bodies are.

I actually saw its essence

               While viewing the Morning Star



Aura Lea: Theme and Variations for piano

The original sheet music cover

One of my most popular piano arrangements, Aura Lea: Theme and Variations for piano, was composed in Toronto.  No matter where I play it – on the concert stage, for a private party or during the dinner hour – it always receives grand applause and some rather sizable tips.  The arrangement is heart rendering;  bringing back pleasant memories.  One variation combines the theme with “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”; bringing two great American songs together.  And, by the way, this composition has many showy virtuoso passages!

Aura Lea is one of the most beloved American songs and is arguably as popular as Amazing Grace.  Our generation heard it with the words that Elvis sang as Love Me Tender.  It has graced America over the last 150 years.  The music was written by W.W. Fosdick and words by George R. Poulton during the Civil War in 1861.  The sheet music cover is the original Confederate version, dated 1864.

Below is a partial list of where this melody can be found. I feel that it is a valuable addition to any serious piano player’s repertoire.

Other occurrences of the song

“Aura Lea” was memorably sung by Frances Farmer and a male chorus in the 1936 film Come and Get It, based on Edna Ferber‘s novel.   Diana Muldaur sings the song to David Carradine in the episode “The Elixir” of Kung Fu.  The Elvis Presley song “Love Me Tender” (lyric by Ken Darby) is a derivative adaptation of this song.  A later Presley recording for the film The Trouble with Girls entitled “Violet (Flower of N.Y.U.)” also used the melody of “Aura Lea”.

Jerry Lanning performed the song on an episode of “The Donna Reed Show” in 1962 entitled “Big Star”.  The television cavalry comedy F Troop used a variation of the song to welcome saloon singer Laura Lee in the episode “She’s Only a Build in a Girdled Cage” (cf. “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage“).  The television western The Young Riders used the song in its series finale, which took place in 1861 and showed how the American Civil War was affecting its characters’ lives.

There is also a version of “Aura Lea” called “Army Blue” associated with the U.S. Military Academy.   In “Army Blue,” lyrics specific to the academy, written by George T. Olmstead, an 1865 graduate of the academy, are sung to the original melody. It is the running theme music in the background of the 1954 John Ford film The Long Gray Line.

Allan Sherman topicalized the song with this polio-based version:

Every time you take vaccine, take it Aura Lea (pun on “orally”)
As you know the other way is more painfully!”


The 1983 film Trading Places includes Ivy League stockbrokers at their racquet club singing a sexual parody of this song about their college days and their fraternity’s conquest of various women on locations at campus, with the refrain changed to “Constance Frye.”

The television show How I Met Your Mother 2009 episode (season 5 episode 22) “Robots Versus Wrestlers“, features Ted Mosby at an upper-class party singing the Trading Places “Constance Fry” version along with film director Peter Bogdanovich and New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz.

In Revenge of the Nerds, Betty Childs and the other girls from her sorority sing a parody (though not the exact tune) to the Tri-Lambs.

Check out my performance of Aura Lea: Theme and Variations recorded live in concert at Scott’s Oquaga Lakehouse in Deposit, New York for a select audience, and played on an old and appropriate sounding piano.



De Mattia Trio rehearsing "Moonlight On the Lake"
De Mattia Trio rehearsing “Moonlight On the Lake”

Three of our original music pieces arranged for oboe, Horn in F and piano will be performed in the following concert.

The pieces are Moonlight on the Lake; Joining Hands For Life; and Iguana Farm (for Oboe and Piano)

De Mattia Family in Concert

Celebrating Fedora De Mattia’s 100th Birthday

Sunday, Sept. 20th at 3:00 PM

Lakewood Presbyterian Church
14502 Detroit Ave.
Lakewood, Ohio 44107 (Cleveland Area)

Edmond De Mattia, Oboe, Retired Principal oboist, US Navy Band Washington and founder and President of the American Concert Band Association (86 year old brother)
Alan De Mattia, French horn, member of the Cleveland Symphony (nephew)
Richard De Mattia, Piano, Organist, MENCA, Computer specialist, choir director (nephew)
Suellen De Mattia, Pianist, School Teacher, Flutist, (niece)

Fedora De Mattia is a well-known, repsected and beloved School Teacher, Pianist, sister and aunt.

Music on the Program for Oboe, French horn, Piano
By David and Sharon Ohrenstein

Public Invited.
Light refreshments

    THE DE MATTIA FAMILY TO SHOWCASE OUR MUSIC.  Here in Sarasota, on May 24, 2015,  Here, in Sarasota, Florida,  a financially successful fund raising concert was given for the Salvation Army.  The performers were the Windsong 5; a group consisting of Edmond De Mattia on oboe, David Lieberman on Clarinet, John Steinspring on bassoon, David on piano and soprano Sharon.  David and Sharon have created many arrangements for the group.  Ohrenstein learned the art of arranging from his years of work with maestro Rubinoff and His Violin (see video on website).   As part of their arranging, David and Sharon have also taken famous classical melodies and arranged them just for the group. One, which has been making the rounds in churches around the country, is Sing Unto God, which they also played at the Salvation Army concert- to be posted.  In Sing Unto God Sharon adapted the famous melody from the last movement of the 1st Symphony by Brahms, adding lyrics and a compelling middle section to his great theme. The symphony is famous but the story goes that after Beethoven wrote his 9th symphony, it was believed that no one could write a symphony that could match its awesome greatness.  With his 1st Symphony, it’s believed that Brahms did. But because of the reputation of Beethoven’s 9th,  even Brahms did not attempt a symphony until he was well seasoned into his forties.  David and Sharon feel so special and honored to work with such high caliber musicians as their friend and mentor, Ed De Mattia and company. They are looking forward to selections from their concert for the Salvation army on this website.

A New Direction for the Arts


Image result for pictures of greek ideal of beauty classical
The Return of Beauty to the Arts
  A new direction for the arts is coming. Vulgarity in the varied arts of music, theater, film, costume and humor can be summarized by one word: Outdated!  Our culture has been recently and quietly adapting a new cultural credo: “BACK TO BEAUTIFUL”.  “What does the credo mean  and why is it happening?” you ask.  The proof that this change is taking place can be found in the bottom line of box office receipts. The change  is coming because of the challenging and difficult times we live in.
To understand the reason for the transition that we will experience in the arts, I ask my reader to refer to the blog I wrote on this site entitled: One Musical Hoagy Please! It analyzes  the epoch making song, Stardust by Hoagy Carmichael. Here is the simplified summary:

Good times =  emphasis on Rhythm for fun and enjoyment

Difficult times = emphasis on Melody for healing

 The movie box office proof: My blog today was prompted by an article that appeared in the New York Times Arts Section (Monday August 3, 2015) entitled: “R-rated Comedies Lag in Sales” written by Brooks Barnes.  In particular, Barnes discusses how the summer movie “Vacation” was marketed by images of its stars covered in feces.  He also states that it was the 4th R-rated comedy to get the “cold shoulder” from the public.  I firmly believe that if the entertainment industry doesn’t move with the times and make more movies that emphasize beauty of mind, body and soul; their profits will shrink.

That the arts, from time to time, seek  a new direction has precedent.  Eventually, every era and cultural movement hits a climax, descends and something new then takes its place. The great composer, Claude Debussy, was perceptive enough to know that point was musically reached  in the late 1800’s by Richard Wagner’s opera, Tristan and Isolde. It took Romanticism and love as far as they could possibly go in opera.  Debussy knew that Romanticism was basically dead after Wagner’s masterpiece. Debussy had to look at music from a new angle.  My blog about Debussy explains his search for a new sound and some of the techniques that he used for that purpose. Film and theater, like Debussy, should seek this new direction.

 At the right moment, dissonance, conflict, and vulgarity in the arts; if called for, are effective.   Beethoven, in his Eroica Symphony, wisely chooses powerful dissonances at the 1st movement’s climax by using two extended chords in the orchestra that clash by half tones.  In the hands of the genius of Beethoven, for that moment, the sound is most offensive, but totally called for as he depicts the horrors of war.  However, if the negative qualities of vulgarity, bad taste, and offensiveness are used in excess and for their own sake; I believe that the art form they are attached to is not in keeping with the new direction that the arts are about to take.

The Phantom of the Opera is Now a Boogie?

The Phantom of the Opera  is Now a Boogie?  Yes, and the sheet music is available for purchase on this website. Longevity has come to the  Phantom of the Opera  originally written by Gaston Leroux  as a French magazine series in Le Gaulois.  His first installment appeared September 23, 1909.  Some 106 years later, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s  version is still the longest running musical in the history of Broadway.  As a composer, I have chosen to add to the crest of the Phantom wave with a little help from Bach through his Toccata and Fugue in D minor. I have turned “The Phantom of the Opera” into the “Boogie Man of the Opera” which is available for purchase here.  This work, with its “entertaining version of horror and villainy” not only found its way into the Hollywood film of the Phantom of the Opera (1962) (picture below); but also earlier in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931); the Black Cat (1934) and later in Disney’s film, Fantasia.

Erik, The Phantom (Lon Chaney) and Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin)

I took Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor  and made it into a boogie-woogie!

The Phantom of the Opera is Now a Boogie? I took Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor  and made it into a boogie-woogie!  Since Bach loved experimentation, most “long-haired”musicians agreed that he would have approved of the project. I was living at the time with my wife and three children in  Toronto in a duplex at 68 Thursfield Cresent.    During cocktail hour I played the piano at the Prince Hotel in Don Mills and at night, I went around the corner and entertained during the dinner hour at the Duncan House.  However, as that winter of ’87  was ferocious, we were often home bound which gave me plenty of time for the project.  I’m including an excerpt for listening.  Until this last year, I have been playing piano in the  summers regularly in New York at Scott’s Oquaga Lake House in Deposit, NY. where my Bach boogie continually receives bravos.  This winter I will begin my 7th year playing the vintage Steinway pianos 6 nights a week at  Gasparilla Inn on Boca Grande in Florida (click on upcoming events).  I frequently close my evenings with the Toccata and Fugue a la boogie for the amusement and enjoyment of  patrons.


Octavian and Cleopatra Robby May; Sharon Lesley
The English opera”Octavian and Cleopatra” book and lyrics by Sharon Lesley Ohrenstein, music by David Ohrenstein 
Robby May as Octavian and  Sharon Lesley as Cleopatra – set against the backdrop of the Great Pyramid



          LOVE CONQUERS ALL IN OUR OPERA: OCTAVIAN AND CLEOPATRA where musical styles take turns.  The Roman point of view, through militaristic music, alternates with exotic and beautiful Egyptian melodies sung by Cleopatra and her ladies in waiting. Whereas the Roman style is more “foursquare”; the music of Cleopatra is languid, sexy and touches the heart.  As an unwilling Octavian becomes totally taken with Cleopatra, his angular Roman style changes to the Egyptian. At the end, he sings the beautiful aria, She was Egypt’s Queen as he recalls  her alluring charm and  female virtues.  In a subplot, a Roman captain is sent by Octavian to guard Cleopatra.  The captain also falls in love with her and plots his own escape with her. . The Captain’s hardened ways of war disappear in the presence Cleopatra as he sings the melodious aria of love which closes act one, In the Darkness.  The opera burned the midnight oil for two years and became a labor of love between the husband-wife team of lyricist-book writer Sharon and composer David.  Sharon has currently been orchestrating the work.  Look  on our website entitled   under the heading of “Stage”. Then click on the Octavian and Cleopatra drop down for more information.

The Genius of Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy

The genius of Claude Debussy is difficult, but yet important to try to follow. Playing piano provides the pathway to orchestral  composing; as the sound range of the entire orchestra is covered by the span of its 88 keys. Claude Debussy, at age 9, followed this path under auspices of a pupil of Chopin. He was not satisfied, however, to merely play the piano and win honors and prizes; he also wanted to search for a new sound for music.


 The genius of Claude Debussy needed a believer.. Enter Mme. von Meck, the rich patroness of Tchaikovsky.  She took it upon herself to finance Debussy’s trip to Russia and Asia so that he could discover the new sound he was looking for. It worked.  He absorbed  the music of the gypsies, Russian folk music, as well as the musical palettes of  Mussorgsky, Borodin and Balakirev. Thank heavens for those who support composers. They have made much of the music that we enjoy today possible.

Claude Debussy playing at Ernest Chausson salon 1893.
Claude Debussy playing at Ernest Chausson salon 1893.


 The genius of Claude Debussy went on to win the highest European prize for composing- the Prix de Rome. On returning to Paris, he aligned himself with poets and painters who had already partaken of the new impressionistic rage that began in France during 1880’s.  The goal of impressionism was to give a sense of what was seen but for only for a fleeting moment.  In art this resulted in vague shapes and lines which were often blurred.  Musically it gave an “on the spot” impression of how a person feels.  At the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, Debussy further grew in scope by studying vases from Japan and the music from Java.


In his quest to find new ways to write music, the genius of Claude Debussy also used the old Medieval modes; as well as the pentatonic and whole tone scales. He heard these novel scales in Russia and at Javanese concerts. Whenever possible, Debussy avoided the old major and minor scales. Debussy especially disliked the music of Wagner. Whenever he felt Wagner’s influence entering one of his compositions, he would strike the notes  and say: “There’s that old devil again.” Wagner had carried the music of the Romantic era as far as it could go. This happened in his opera Tristan and Isolde, produced in Munich in 1865. Almost the entire 2nd and 3rd acts of the three act opera, are an “unending love duet” in which virtually every motion of love from tenderness to grandiose passion are sung. After Wagner’s opera,  music needed a new direction.  Debussy Quote


Debussy added to basic musical triads extensions by 7th, 9ths, 11ths and 13ths.  Suchcomplex chords can be heard in multiple ways. For example, C-E-G-B-D can be heard as containing a C-E-G triad,  E-G-B triad or  G-B-D triad. Like impressionism, the lines of definition are blurred. Impressions of several chords at the time are given. !


I am currently working on one hour of Debussy’s piano music to be available on the website.  It will feature some of his most popular piano works including his Arabesques and the Suite Bergamasque  with Claire de Lune.  One technique that Debussy enjoyed using was a novel approach to the two note phrase.  Often, like in the Prelude from the Suite Bergamasque, he tied the 1st note of the two note phrase over the barline. Then he would resolve it with the second tone on the second beat. I call this technique a delayed two note phrase resolution.  The release date of my Debussy recording will be announced.  My teacher, Mischa Kottler, was part of the Paris scene during the 1920’s.  He studied under Alfred Cortot  who founded numerous musical conservatories in Paris.  Cortot edited Chopin’s music as he studied under one of his pupils.  I’m practicing for the release by working in fleeting and musical blurred moments.  I’m working on  beautiful tone for both melody and counterpoint.  Most important. I’m using shorter and marked phrases. The legato marks of most editors are incredibly long. I feel like they are the lazy man’s way of editing music.

Mischa Kottler- A Visit By the Legendary Piano Instructor

Mischa and I in our Sarasota Home
Mischa and I in our Sarasota Home


Mischa Kottler – A visit by the legendary piano instructor. Here’s how it all started: The phone rings.  I pick it up and hear, “David, this is your piano teacher, Mischa.” I was incredulous .  Having left Detroit, Michigan 10 years earlier, I remembered that Mischa Kottler was in his eighties  just before I had moved to Sarasota.  I said to the voice on the phone: “That’s a joke. Who is this, really?”

Minute Waltz (Mischa Kottler Version) – YouTube (to be amazed beyond words, click on you tube words and watch)
Dec 28, 2013 – Uploaded by Joseph Beels

Chopin’s Minute Waltz, with a twistMischa Kottler playsRachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, Movement #1 – Duration: 15:18. by Joseph  …

The voice said, “Really, it’s Mischa and I hear that you have more children than I know piano concertos.”

Mischa with our children
Mischa with our children

At that moment, I knew it was Mischa because his gruff, Russian accent now matched his familiar sense of humor.  To my shock, he said he would love to fly to Sarasota to visit me and my family. To which I, without hesitation, said , “Yes.”   He also said he would be happy to give me piano lessons in the exchange.  To which I immediately said,”That would be a dream come true!”

Mischa’s famous students

Mischa had guided the careers, at least in part, of such notables as Seymour Lipkin, Ruth Laredo,  and Cynthia Raim.   Mischa’s student frequently went on to win piano competitions.  He even gave advice to Van Cliburn, who flew in from Texas for fingering solutions to a Brahms Piano Concerto.  My father and I saw van Cliburn leave as I arrived for my piano lesson.  I was told at the time by Mischa to keep Van Cliburn’s visit a secret…. which I have until now.   You may remember that Van Cliburn was an American pianist who achieved worldwide recognition in 1958, at the age of 23, when he won the first quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War that actually opened the doors to better Russian-American relations.  Ah, the merits of great music, well-played!

Mischa and I at the piano with my daughter
Mischa and I at the piano with my daughter

If you were accepted as a  Kottler student,  you might have to wait about 1-2 years just to start, his lesson time was in such demand.  Even then, acceptance didn’t mean regular piano lessons.  Since Mischa was the official pianist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, he would tour for months.

Mischa’s own legendery teacher – Alfred Cortot

A visit from the legendary Mischa Kottler. Wow! That Mischa was actually coming to stay with our family was beyond my wildest dreams.  When he arrived at our home, this man at 94 years of age, sat down at our not so great piano and played Chopin’s “Minute Waltz”.  It is incredibly difficult to play in tempo with single notes, but  Mischa played it with double notes in 3rds, 4ths and 5ths in the right hand at the same tempo that other pianists are only able to play it one note at the time.  Mischa mastered this most difficult art under the instruction of Alfred Cortot….who had studied with  a pupil of Chopin.  Kottler studied with Cortot at the Paris Conservatory during the 1920’s because of a recommendation from a very impressive pianist composer – Sergei Rachmaninoff.   Kottler had auditioned for Rachamninoff.  I was told by Kottler that Rachmaninoff said to Kottler, ” You have to go to Paris and study with Cortot.” and gave him a a personal letter of recommendation.

Another notable Mischa student –  Greg Philliganes

From work with Stevie Wonder while still in his teens, to tours and recordings with Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, and Toto, Phillinganes’ massive discography reads like a “Who’s Who” of pop music, encompassing four decades.

From Greg Philliganes’ interview in Keyboard Magazine

“Sensing that I needed discipline more than anything else, my Mom managed to hook me up with a wonderful teacher named Mischa Kottler.  He was a no-nonsense Russian Jewish guy who could crack a pane of glass with one finger. He was a complete badass, and he cooled my attitude out immediately. I studied with him well into my teens.

What kinds of things were you studying with him?

I was studying technique and classical repertoire. He taught me a certain way of playing that I still use to this day: a sense of evenness where your wrists aren’t loose or moving up and down. It’s a totally linear way of playing, where there’s even movement in both hands so your wrists stay perfectly still. Misha would take two fingers and weigh them down on my wrists to keep them from moving. He instilled a sense of dexterity and definition in my playing. If I’m known for my speed and precision, it’s probably due to Misha more than anything else. 

Now you see why titled the blog: Mischa Kottler- A Visit By the Legendary Piano Instructor



Unique Finger Exercises for Pianists

franz liszt finger exercises
Franz Liszt Had Unique Finger Exercises

Numerous pianist-composers have written their own finger exercises. At times these exercises were performed away from the piano and were termed “finger gymnastics.” E. Piccirilli mentions in his book, Gymnastics and Massage of the Hand, published in 1914 in Rome how the conductor of La Scala, Tonassi,  had seen Franz Liszt use such exercises before sitting down at the piano. A detailed description is given in Piccirilli’s book.   These finger gymnastics were confirmed by a blind keyboard player, Luigi Modulo, who was the organist at S. Simon Grange. Modulo said that Liszt had shown these exercises to a friend of the director of the Institute of Padua; and that the institute produced the best students. I will deal with these forgotten exercises in future blogs.

Carl Czerny and the Beethoven lineage

Carl Czerny  wrote exercise books to facilitate the playing of Beethoven; among them were The School and Velocity and The Art of Finger Dexterity. My own instructor, Mischa Kottler, demonstrated his lineage back to Beethoven and the Czerny exercises and directed me on how to play Czerny’s studies.   Mischa studied in Vienna in the 1920’s with Emil von Sauer, who studied with Franz Liszt, who studied with Carl Czerny who studied  four years with Beethoven himself. Beethoven was a great innovator of piano technique and passed his secrets on to his students.  I know which of the techniques I employ were, in fact, used by Beethoven. I have already blogged on this website about his innovative prepared thumb and will blog about other key techniques.

Cortot’s elaborate finger exercises based on Chopin

Chopin wrote two volumes of concert etudes; his opus 10 and opus 25. They include studies in every key.  We see the influence of J.S. Bach who Chopin not only admired and regularly practiced; but also imitated Bach’s use of diverse key signatures in his own compositions.  After studying with von Sauer, Mischa then went to Paris to study under Alfred Cortot. Cortot, in turn, was tutored by a pupil of Chopin. When I was taught the Chopin etudes, Mischa insisted that I purchase the edition written by Cortot. I had to send my order to Paris in order to purchase it.  Alfred Cortot wrote an introduction with elaborate instructions for each etude. I had to play these”pre-study” studies for Mischa as part of my “going through the mill”. For my next blog I will discuss a great study for assisting small to medium sized hands, which I invented;  so, I am at liberty to demonstrate it.