Piano Lessons

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.

How I Encouraged Dave’s Marriage

Newlyweds Darlene and Dave
Newlyweds Darlene and Dave

How I Encouraged Dave’s Marriage: The ways of love are unknowable.  Dave went on a concert tour, and on a cold, snowy night in February; he was playing at a Lion’s Club in Hilliard, Ohio- a suburb of Colombus. At the insistence of Mark Azar, then a 10 year old boy, he and his mother came to hear the  Rubinoff and His Violin at that  concert. Earlier Mark had heard the maestro play for his school, as Dave gave free concerts for the children in the vicinity of his engagements.

Darlene fell in love immediately on hearing this grand violinist.  Then, after the concert, she wrote the following note on the back of her business card for little Mark to give the Maestro: “Dear Mr. Rubinoff: Tonight, at age 44, I know what love at first sight means. If I were free to do as I please, I would follow you everywhere.  Mother of eight- Darlene”.

Dave came back to Detroit to work with me and said; “I’m 73 and have just met a wonderful woman who is 44. Do you think I should marry her?” Without any hesitation I said “Why not?  Mr. Rubinoff then said, “She has 8 young children”.  I felt that Dave was in love with her, so I said: “It will be wonderful. Do it!”

And so, it was wonderful.  I feel that the Azar family, by their love and kindness, extended Mr. Rubinoff’s life by more than a dozen years. They also welcomed me into their household to work with the Maestro and treated me as one of their family.  I am forever grateful to the Azars.   (Stay tuned for more Rubinoff blogs)

commemorative concert to be given in Circleville, Ohio

Unearthing a Lost Concert of “Rubinoff and His Violin” After 30 Years


Unearthing a Lost Concert of “Rubinoff and His Violin”

Unearthing a Lost Concert of “Rubinoff and His Violin”After 30 Years. The year 1984 is not so far past; but the man playing the Stradivarius violin, David Rubinoff, was born in 1897. How I came to be his arranger and accompanist is quite a story.

In begins in 1911  when Victor Herbert, famed conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and writer of operettas, was on a Sabbatical and touring Europe. It was at the Warsaw Conservatory of Music that Herbert heard a young Rubinoff playing his composition: Dance of the Russian Peasant. Without hesitation Herbert said: “Son, you belong to America.” And so, Victor Herbert brought him and his entire family back to the United States. Rubinoff  lived with Herbert who then placed him in the center of American cultural life. He was introduced to such notables as John Phillip Sousa,  the great tenor, Caruso, and others at the Sunday brunches held in his home.  I have had the honor of working with the Maestro Rubinoff since 1970.


To transition to this concert given at Scott’s Hotel in Deposit, New York; my wife, Sharon Lesley, and I have had quite a history concert touring together. We have been at Scotts during the summer months since 1983. I asked Ray Scott if I could invite Rubinoff and his wife to the hotel, and he jumped at the chance. Some 30 years later the Scotts have just now found the recording of our concert. Now you can hear, through youtube, why Victor Herbert insisted that Rubinoff belonged to America. At an actual performance at age 86 he will play the Dance of the Russian Peasant  and also with me, a beautiful approximately 45 minute concert of some of our arrangements. If you feel about the music as I do, you will believe you are witnessing a miracle.Continue reading

Music is in the Air in the Catskills!

Walking in upstate New York
Hiking in Ithaca in upstate New York



Music is in the air in the Catskills! However, in the picture, I  had taken a side trip to visit my youngest son who was at Cornell University in Ithaca.  I have been told by various entertainers that there was some 200 resorts back in the heyday of the Catskill Mountains that featured entertainers seven days a week! What a wonderful opportunity it was for people to try out and polish their acts. Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, Gene and Fred Kelly… so many of the greats launched their careers from the Catskills. I guess that back then they could call it the entertainer’s Cape Canaveral.


from The Oquaga Spirit Speaks  by David Ohrenstein ( my book of poetry, written over three summers in the Catskill Mountains, will soon be available for purchase on this website. Almost all the poems were written while hiking the mountains.  I describe the setting of  where I wrote the book in a sample poem called,  Get Thee a Walking Stick)

It rained the night before;
The streams and brooks are full…
Gurgling down the mountain,
Feeling gravity’s pull.

The noisy crows are cawing;
Giant birds in flight-
So much noise they make
Before the Sun is bright.

A rabbit leaped, then jumped
As I left my abode;
The morning air was chilly
As on my walk I strode.

I heard a distant rooster
Add to the early noise
As daybreak waved her baton,
The morning orchestra was poised.

Flowing brooks like strings,
The crows are quite the horns.
Other birds are woodwinds
While drums of man are born.

A car makes grating noises
As it struggles u[p a hill.
A train rumbles miles away,
Its whistle gives me a thrill.

The orchestra, everywhere is heard;
Not only at symphony hall.
And tickets cost not a penny,
Spring, Winter, Summer or Fall.

What a spectrum of sounds
Does the morning walker hear!
He’s more alerted and alive
Then if awakened by Paul Revere!!

If it’s life you wish to live
And enjoy it to the marrow…
Then get thee a walking stick
And hear the morning sparrow.

Beethoven’s 5th is a Musical Molecule

{\clef treble \key c \minor \time 2/4 {r8 g'8[ g'8 g'8] | ees'2\fermata | r8 f'8[ f'8 f'8] | d'2~ | d'2\fermata | } } Two four note molecules

Beethoven’s 5th is a musical molecule. Well, on the periodic chart  atoms are arranged into eight families by, that is in order of the number of protons (i.e. hydrogen 1, helium 2, lithium 3- etc). In the same manner, the tones of our major, minor and modal scales are arranged by eight successive tones. As elements have repeated properties every time they have the same number of electrons in the outer most shell; sympathetic vibrations of musical tones are on a higher level every eight notes (which is called an octave) as, for example a lower “C” vibrates sympathetically with a higher “C”. On the periodic chart, the elements, for example, of beryllium, magnesium, and calcium are located on successive octaves on the periodic chart and also have sympathetic properties.

Our musical scales and the chemical elements work by base eight as does our dancing. The choreographer in the Broadway show,” A Chorus Line“, yells out: “five, six, seven, eight” in tempo to start the dance. (I will dwell on the specific benefits of using base eight over base ten or the binary in future blogs). Broadly speaking, base eight promotes life and love. The base that you use to count with also shapes your thoughts and consequent actions.

Now let’s compare a musical motif to an elemental molecule. Most of its 1st movement is based on the above four notes for its development. If we used only three notes of his four note motif; Beethoven’s 5th would be unrecognizable. In this regard we can compare a musical motif to a molecule which is defined as the smallest particle that a compound can be can be divided into and yet still exist as that compound. For example, the base unit of methane is C8H18 (eight carbon atoms attached to 18 hydrogen atoms). If even one atom of carbon or hydrogen were to be removed, it would cease to be methane.  In the same manner,  one note taken out of the opening of Beethoven’s 5th, it would have a totally different essence. Conclusion: Beethoven’s 5th is a musical molecule. Just as a musical motif provides the identity of music, a single molecule provides the identity of a substance. We can say that Beethoven’s 5th makes for good chemistry.

Film featurette called 50 words by Kathryn Parks

Kathryn’s Cabaret


Kathryn’s Cabaret: Although in France “cabaret” at one time was referred to as any business that sold liquor; as a theatrical venue, the culture began in 1881 with the opening of Le Chat Noir, the “Black Cat”, in the Monmartre district of Paris. Among its patrons were Debussy, Satie and Maupassant. Performers got to test new material and audiences could enjoy the goings on for the price of a few drinks in win-win-win situation.


In keeping with this exciting tradition, stage star Kathryn Parks, who has been cast in leading rolls across the Sarasota-Manatee-Venice area,  with guest relatives- mother Sharon Lesley and father David Ohrenstein – some 135 years later will bring back the original spirit and intent of Le Chat Noir to the cabaret stage at the Venice Theatre. Kathryn’s Cabaret -As part of the 2015 Summer Cabaret Festival, we’ll be appearing Saturday, July 11 and Thursday, July 16 at 8pm.


After keeping a diary for over 20 years, Kathryn will be sharing excerpts and singing songs. She’ll reveal stories of growing up in a very entertaining household while singing the classic songs of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Gershwin, Sondheim, and more.

Tickets are only $15 and can be purchased here:  //tix5.centerstageticketing.com/sites/venicetheatre/showdates.php?s_id=1174  The Venice Theatre is located at 140 W. Tampa Ave., Venice, Fl. 34285. The box office is 941-488-1115.


Here is a video with clips of Kathryn’s performances. We hope to see you there!

Catskill Mountains and Live Music

Pebbles tossed in a pond, Circles do they make. from The Oquaga Spirit Speaks
A pebble, tossed in a pond,
Circles does it make.
from The Oquaga Spirit Speaks

The Sound of Music is in the Catskill Mountains at Scott’s Oquaga Lake House in Deposit, New York. The location has inspired my many books of poetry. The Scott’s music, just like the von Trapp family, fills their mountain dwelling. They are truly the American version of this Austrian family.  I, David Ohrenstein, in my volumes of poetry, entitled, The Oquaga Spirit Speaks – named after the spirit Indian guide, whose presence I felt while on my walks in nature- was dictated to word by word by this spirit. For my 1st blog, I chose “Nature’s Waltz”. When a conductor leads an orchestra in 3/4 time, he often chooses to outline the curves of a circle:

Nature loves to waltz.
She moves in 3/4 time
Like a dancer’s feet
Or my beats of rhyme

Swaying to the wind
In undulating motion.
Rocking back and forth
To triple meter potion.

Grass waves in the wind;
Always in an arc.
Branches circle about
As breezes blow through the park.

A pebble, tossed in a pond,
Circles does it make.
One follows the other,
Leaving a bull’s eye wake.

The eternal comes in three
But on a higher plane
Where nature’s curves are found
In the space and time refrain.

Man likes duple meters.
His triple meters wane.
Return ye to the waltzes of Vienna
And the vibrant boleros of Spain!

Elizabeth of Russia


Elizabeth of Russia, it all goes back to a book that seemingly popped off a shelf decades ago as wife- Sharon walked through Brant’s Used Book Store in Sarasota, Florida.  She felt a special destiny in that moment. The book was about Elizabeth of Russia, the daughter of Peter the Great. However, although she wrote her book after some initial research, the idea sat dormant in her mind.  Some twenty plus years later, Sharon then met with her husband David, a composer, began collaborating on the project, and Elizabeth of Russia was born.Continue reading

Chopin’s Works and the Musical Soul

Artur Rubinstein, the famed Polish pianist,  once remarked that the damper pedal on the piano gives  the instrument  its soul.  Although I feel that no one is an expert on the nature of the soul, we all are entitled to an opinion. As for me, I feel that the soul an an accumulation of all the thoughts, emotions and  feelings that a person during their lifetime; and possibly, if the theory of reincarnation is correct, all their other cumulative lifetimes.  In a similar way, the damper pedal can effect an accumulation of sound. I personally believe that the worst disservice one can do to music is to insist on as pure a blend of tone as possible.  As no one has a pure soul, not even a saint; then no singer or instrumentalist could or should attempt to sing or play with total purity. It just doesn’t happen in life and therefore should it not happen in music. Our music, at best, is a reflection of the human condition through sound.

As a pianist, that brings up the point: How should we approach the damper pedal on the piano?  Beethoven is reputed to have left the damper pedal down for the entire of the 1st movement of his Moonlight Sonata. The answer on the best use of the damper pedal  lies in the (1) sonority of the particular piano being played (2) one’s touch and (3) the nature of the composition. Artur Rubinstein once commented that he would give a year of his life to hear how Chopin played the piano. All of us are can only  make educated gueses as to how Chopin played.  I feel that the damper pedal was generously applied by Chopin: Often he uses one firm and repeated tone in the bass, played with beautiful sound, repeating it many times  with changing harmonies above. Musically, a low and repeated tone called a pedal point. In Chopin’s Prelude, Opus 28 No. 17, for example,  a low Ab pedal tone, three lines under the bass staff, in 6/8 time repeats and sounds for a duration of 26 measures. If this the section is played on an appropriate piano; while bringing out the bass, playing the melody with only a medium strong tone, and the chords in the middle with extreme delicacy, the damper pedal may be held down for the entire 26 bars- thereby giving the entire section the beautiful effect of soul. At some point in the future, when more resources are at more disposal, I will play this prelude in the manner I feel  it should be played as a feature on our website.  Finally, I ask my pianist  readers not to be afraid to experiment with touch, pianos and longer damper pedaling  when called for.