Baldwin, Baldwin pianos, Berkeley, Berkeley CA, California, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano shopping, Russell Kassman, Shirley Kirsten

My Birthday present to me!

Who would have imagined that a new piano would be my special gift to myself! It was one week since my mother had passed away at 100 and I was devastated, shaken by the loss– too distressed to be thinking about celebrating my upcoming birthday in any way. Yet when I saw an ad for a vintage Steinway grand, 1926 on Craig’s list that had an enviable list of positives, including a rebuild by a respected technician, I thought about checking it out, perhaps to honor my mother who had always supported my artistic endeavors.

Even during economically hard times, she had managed to buy me my first real piano–a Sohmer upright that replaced a wheezing Weiser (about 52 inches high) that had land mines of buzzing notes, and many not playing at all. Yet on the up side, the keyboard provided a landing for my cage-free parakeet whose droppings further complicated my playing experience.

Fast forward to Oberlin Conservatory graduation.

My father, a railroad worker, had replaced the regal upright with a gorgeously resonant Steinway M, 1917, that sustained me through graduate school and my California relocation. And after two quality rebuilds, (one on the East Coast) the piano became a permanent fixture in my life.

Cohabiting with the old-timer, my Baldwin Hamilton, known as the blind date piano, barely survived with its glassy upper treble and faltering bass– And considering the instrument’s age and condition, it had been cared for to a remarkable level.

Yet with my personal grief rising to fever pitch, I knew that I needed some kind of immediate emotional relief and replenishment.

In so many words, that’s exactly how a new Baldwin grand came into my life….

Baldwin name on the piano

So without further ado, here’s the beauty that won my heart and eased my pain.

Baldwin profile


(P.S. the Steinway on consignment below didn’t make it to the winner’s circle, though it’s still deserving of a good home.)

Here’s me trying it out before I met up with Baldwin 165.



Berkeley, Berkeley CA, Berkeley rental, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano blog

The challenges of a pianist seeking housing

In this no thanks for the memories flashback, I recount the bias I’d experienced along the housing trail, when as a musician, pet owner and mother of a grown daughter, I applied for a Berkeley lease. (Add a grand piano to the mix, and my rental opportunities nearly evaporated)

As it played out 2 years ago:


1) Early yesterday morning I schlepped up to the East Bay on Amtrak to check out a rental that hadn’t yet reached Craig’s List, CAL Rentals, Trulia, Apartment Hunters Z, Roomster, Facebook Market Place, Oodle, Noodle or (Was I going bonkers, dreaming up more housing listings with cats YES, dogs NO, cats and dogs, hooray, or GO AWAY! NOW and forever!)

In most cases, hundreds of ads on Craig’s vanished with a cat box mouse click, meaning that You Tube sensation Aiden cat, my older daughter’s feline during law school and then adopted by me, would be sent packing–orphaned at 7! WE couldn’t bear it!

(Did I say WE?!)

2) “We” is anathema–Renters with cottages and in-laws setups ARE HORRIFIED THAT A SIGNIFICANT other might invade a cat-less space.

Case in point–Yesterday afternoon I was hounded by two feisty mutts (big ones) who had the run of a once promising rental property–that is, before it became a real-time house of horrors!

As soon as the front gate opened, I was surrounded by two hyper-adrenalized, foaming at the mouth canines who were unsure of my pedigree. Was I a dog’s best friend or not?

Was this a harbinger of things to come?

The cottage had been floated by me, in response to my BPN (Berkeley Parents Network Newsletter) housing wanted post. From e-mailed pics sent by the renter, the rooms looked bright and airy. The cottage, however was clearly a converted garage. And in person, it looked like a moderate security prison with dungeon-like doors. Two dogs from HADES blocked the entrance as if trained to do so.

Once I was cautiously escorted inside the living area by the homeowners, the door was slammed shut as a mandatory measure to keep the pooches out–long enough, that is, to steer them over to their Alpo bowls. Such a well-timed break, allowed me to fantasize a huge makeover of this dreary and depressing “cottage.” (It was the antithesis of a fairytale princess dancing about with chirping sparrows perched on her wrists.)


Did I dare mention Aiden cat and my daughter in the same breath? The dungeon suddenly darkened. A demonizing spirit would hex my 29-year old, who was navigating a difficult job landscape in the midst of a faltering economy?

From the homeowner’s perspective, Frankenstein’s extended family was about to exorcise the premises. (But what about their evil dogs?)

Both husband and wife bolted back that my cat was the real deal breaker, not my daughter.

They explained how the feline would arouse the dogs’ wild instincts causing them to attack my precious pet, even within his safe? sanctuary.

(Ironically, my classical music-making was not a problem.)


Marilyn, G., a Berkeley-based realtor and friend, carefully instructed me how to respond to housing ads, to improve my chances of landing a good rental.

1) Don’t include your signature in your email inquiries! (i.e. web and you tube links)
2) Don’t say you’re “a musician.” It has a bad connotation.
2) Replace the M word with CP, “Classical Pianist”
3) And don’t dare introduce another warm body beside yourself into a cottage or in-law.

Heaven forbid..

I thought back on the canines that had corralled me. The homeowners insisted that they could spring out the front gate and escape if I didn’t physically steer them back into the yard.

That’s why I was urged to stay within the cottage, and minimize visitors?

Did they hear me say, “piano students,” inadvertently, in the same breath as “friends?”

Marilyn would have excoriated me for such an ill-timed leak. She insisted that I needed the lease before I shared the intimate details of my life’s work.

Was she kidding? Or had she gone berserk? (in the spirit of namesake, Bezerkeley)


I noticed a narrow, fenced-off space behind the garage, or should I say, “cottage” that could have been a safe haven for Aiden, me, my daughter and the few students that would trickle in to take lessons.

No such luck! The homeowner husband firmly announced his intentions to re-landscape the back area, so the mutts could get their exercise scaling a lower barrier.

Watch out, Aiden! It was worse than a looming mountain lion attack!

That was my cue to beat it out of there as fast as possible, heading a mile up Shattuck to see a rental off Eunice.

Greeted by a chipper young gardener, I was guided through a pleasing in-law space with a trail of students right behind me.

Still, it was a relief not to see dogs, only deer traces of trampled foliage. (It was definitely an improvement over the bald patches of dried grass and howling dogs at the previous location)

Of more concern, were 12 steep wooden stairs that could challenge even highly skilled piano movers.

Oops! Did I mention a “piano” to the gardener, without realizing it?

Marilyn insisted that I should soft pedal it. (no pun intended)

But how could I sneak a piano over those steps without being noticed?

We both knew that the piano was part of my baggage and could be a deal breaker if the elderly man who occupied and owned the home, objected to Chopin or Brahms’s music seeping through the walls into the dining room.


The place stole my heart with its polished hard wood floors, redwood paneling and divine acoustical environment. I could easily imagine my piano, center stage, in the den.

In my fervent excitement, I offered the gardener 6 months rent in cash, but it didn’t fly. Rental practices had changed.

As instructed, I filled out still another application as I sat at a table, overlooking a gorgeous ravine.

A thick packet containing bank statements, a recent laudatory credit report, my record of long established home ownership and rental history, plus a generous list of references, had been lumped in with the paperwork.

Suddenly, I noticed a mom and daughter coming through the gate. They had a glimmer of hope in their eyes.

Surely the youngster had the edge on me in this housing market though in the old days, a first knock rental inquiry, earned an advantage, but not so in the Millennium.

Homeowners often had showings for days, and collected reams of paper to stuff in recycle bins. By and large, they favored students, because of their short stays. Rents could be hiked after leases expired. A healthy turnover of tenants was desirable.


After a long day of cottage/in-law hunting, I headed back to Downtown Berkeley Bart, destination Richmond Amtrak station.

Once on board the train, I recapped the day’s events and made sure to jot them all down.

Part 2, Continuing Journey–getting desperate

I’d say I’m averaging 6 hours per day looking for the purr-fect Bezerkeley rental. In fact, I just slapped down $325 for an ad in the Daily Californian, only to discover that the pricey paste-up landed in the Daily CLOG SECTION, about 5 pages into the rag. (Well it’s the Internet version, so it’s still a bunch of mouse clicks to get to a student blog pile-up) Basically, I’m COMPETING with eager beaver brainiacs to find a place in the “right part of town.” Might that  be  Arch, Spruce, Oxford, Bonita,  La Conte, La Loma, Milvia, etc.—or the whole Gourmet Ghetto?–with easy access to.

Did I say “ghetto?”–Apparently NOT  what I associate with certain neighborhoods in New York City, my birthplace.

In so many words,  my reserved box on Daily CAL  with ” CLASSICAL PIANIST, CAT, GROWN DAUGHTER, and PIANO,” is a  threat to the well-being of most landlords, that is, if I’m  a renter in perpetuity. (No rent hikes for the next—–years) Fill in the blank. Did someone say “rent control?”

Go somewhere else! No Cats, besides!

A realtor friend in the know, tried to head off a housing blunder by e-mailing ahead of my inquiry.  (It was an in-law set–up  ABOVE ground, just a stone’s throw from the GHETTO)

“Don’t worry, this neat and clean lady is seeking a short-term rental– Has plans to  buy in a year.”

Translation: She won’t get too cozy, or frame her “Home Sweet Home” embroidery on the wall.

And what about the grown daughter?

Not a boon to any rental application–with one exception–If she racked up 60K per annum.

Too many adult children had moved back with their parents as a safe haven from financial disaster.

Did I say “parents?”

In Berzerkeley,  I was on the right side of the  rental candidate curve, having no significant other–gay or straight–but only if I promised not to PARTY or ransack the place.

Wait a minute! The same landlord would take a student over me who partied all night.

No doubt the tenant would be pot-sniffing at a new location in less than a year. (automatic rent hike!)–while I practiced Chopin Mazurkas by candlelight.

To the contrary, the roaming renter would be bound for one of the Co-ops–like infamous Cloyne Court on Ridge, with communal refrigerators leaking rotten vegetables. (I recalled the sickening aroma when two of my CAL kids lived there)

I’d be sipping a Ginseng/Green Tea sunburst cocktail while listening to Glenn Gould’s “Goldberg Variations.” Who could care less? No cause for a banging on my walls..


In summary, I’m willing to reward FREE, life-long piano lessons to the first home finder who lands me a nice place with the following specs:

700 Sq. ft min.–in North Berkeley or Westbrae–NOT anywhere near Tilden or Wild Canyon.. no Arlington or Kensington.

Must be BART accessible!

Can be a cottage, or in-law (not underground and musty) that affords freedom to practice without complaint at civilized hours.

And finally, a cat  and grown daughter must be part of the package without threat of eviction. For the digs, I’m willing to  pay $1600 per month, though I’d prefer to shell out $1500.

ME: High Credit score, Excellent refs–former homeowner for 25 years to 2005–immaculate rental history following. Oberlin grad and the rest.


Back to my floating Daily CAL ad that  appears and disappears in a heart beat.

If you spot it on the fly, click it fast enough to obtain contact info.

But just in case you have eye-hand coordination problems, here’s my e-mail address:

POST SCRIPT: Since Fall 2012, I’ve been happily nestled into a tight North Berkeley space surrounded by my pianos and webcams. The neighbors don’t mind my practicing, and they occasionally drop in to listen. What can be better?

Berkeley, Berkeley CA, classissima,, Franz Schubert, Franz Schubert sonatas, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano, Richard Goode, Schubert, Zellerbach Hall, Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, Zellerbach in Berkeley California

A Feast of pianist, Richard Goode’s Artistry and a walk down memory lane

I hand-selected a particular recital for an outing with my adult student, Jocel. While he’d suggested a Yuja Wang foray at Davies Concert Hall in San Francisco, I prodded him to first experience the sublime artistry of Richard Goode. (Location: Zellerbach Auditorium in Berkeley, CA, CAL PERFORMANCES series)

We were not disappointed.

Richard Goode Program

The last three Sonatas of Schubert were masterfully played, infused with a singing tone that reached the very pinnacle of vocal expression idealized by the composer in his body of lieder. (songs) And while the pianist produced a liquid sound, he wove a tapestry of colors through sonorities and passagework that had an ingrown allegiance to form. His phrases, well spun, had a larger meaning — motivic threads, sequences, transitional bridges, and harmonic progressions synthesized to produce powerful emotional expression and structural meaning.


On a personal note, Richard Goode dates back to my NYC days, when the late Harris Goldsmith, Classical music reviewer at High Fidelity Magazine was a close companion. Such friendship borne of our mutual love for music, created unusual opportunities to partake of great performances up close and personal. At post concert receptions I met virtuosos such as Richard Goode, Ursula Oppens, and Richard’s close friend, Murray Perahia, though the latter was a classmate at the New York City High School of Performing Arts. Both Richard and Murray were regulars at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and were Marlboro alums, under the mentorship of Rudolf Serkin.

In the late 1960’s, Goldsmith invited me to hear “Richard” play the Schumann Fantasy at a Mannes College of Music Masterclass presented by Karl Ulrich Schnabel. (The reading had a signature sweep and beauty of phrasing that left an indelible memory) At the time, Murray was taking up conducting with Carl Bamberger, and both he and Richard had carved out rich chamber music careers before embarking upon their solo journeys.

Fast forward to October 26, 2014: Richard Goode, the seasoned, long-term emissary of divine music-making graced Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley and moved many audience members to tears. I was one of them.

Thank you, Richard for an inspiring afternoon!

me and Richard Goode


Interviews with Richard Goode on Israeli television

Interview with a Pianist’s pianist (San Francisco Classical Voice)

Berkeley, Berkeley CA, classissima,, El Cerrito California, El Cerrito piano studio, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, Logitech HD camera for Skyping piano lessons, Logitech HD web cam, online piano instruction, online piano lessons by web cam, Online private piano instruction, piano, piano instruction, piano instruction by Skype, Piano Street, Piano World, piano world-wide, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Skype, Skype a piano lesson to Australia, Skype piano lessons, skyped piano lessons, Skyping piano lessons, word press, word, wordpress, Yeti mic, you, yout tube,

Online Piano Lessons by Webcam: Pros and Cons (Videos)

I’m not about to pitch web-cam driven piano instruction like a CD package promoter of Piano Playing in a Flash. Learning piano is not in the espresso lane. It takes time, patience, and practice.

The question is, can a student gain as much from Online piano study vs. “live” in-person lessons.

For decades I was a tradition-bound teacher with a touchy feely relationship to my instrument. My goal had always been to ignite passion about tone production and phrasing in the presence of my students. (Who would think, otherwise?)

My beloved NYC teacher Lillian Freundlich was my role model. She always sat beside me to monitor tensions that crept into my movements. Quite often she checked my elbows and wrists until I could experience my own sense of physical freedom and Oneness with the piano. Frequently, she sang over my playing in a mother-loving musical transfer that helped me shape phrases.

When I grew up to become a piano teacher, I carried on her legacy, hovering over my students, singing, conducting, and sometimes squeezing myself onto a tight-fitting bench to demonstrate a line or two.

Any other form of mentoring was culture alien.

It was like a hurricane it, when I sprang upon a You Tube of concert pianist, Jeffrey Biegel teaching a young adult student in Singapore. While thousands of miles separated the two, meaningful instruction transpired. Right before my eyes, in less than 30 minutes, the pupil’s phrasing had improved.

I was inspired enough to try out the Millennium piano teaching landscape, having an open mind.

One of my earliest Skyped lessons was transmitted to an adult student whom I’d taught “live” in El Cerrito, California. Since she would be missing a few sessions due to business obligations, a convenient make-up schedule was needed. The Online route seemed like an easy option.

The lesson flowed well and further make-ups ensued. Here’s one example:

Here’s a “live” lesson with the same student as a means of comparison:

The positives of SKYPING

1) I can strategically place my Logitech external webcam so it provides an up-close-and-personal keyboard view of my arms, hands and wrists. This camera placement allows me to demonstrate various phrases for the student.

Likewise, the student can angle her camera for an optimal view of her hands if she has good equipment. Some students rely on the computer’s internal camera which can work if the lap top is moved close enough to their instrument.

(A London-based student uses a SWIX external cam that provides an outstanding view of her hands and keyboard)

When I think about it, this big screen enhancement of our piano-related physiology, provides a minute-to-minute flow of music and ideas that doesn’t require my nudging a student off the bench for a demonstration.

With pupils I had coached from my second piano (a Steinway upright) the distance would be larger than by computer channels, though I could still walk over to the student if she were present.

(MUSIC READER, incidentally, is a program that allows the teacher to post the music a student is playing, and make notations of fingering, dynamics, etc. as the lesson is in progress. It’s another distance-bridger that supports Online lessons.)

2) From a faraway location, an Online pupil can videotape a “live” Skype lesson aiming the camera in the teacher’s direction. (Many students have done this, though I often send them a supplementary video during the week to flesh out the goals of our lesson)

Convenience of Scheduling

3) Online instruction affords flexibility in setting lesson times. For students wanting to sandwich in a lesson over a lunch break or on weekends, even Sundays, it’s mouse click away. No travel, no hassle.

In cities where access to private instruction is limited, web-caming provides an otherwise unavailable learning opportunity.

(In this regard, I’ve fielded inquiries from Vietnam and Malaysia, among other distant countries. Time differences, however, have to be considered.)

In rural areas of the US, the same access can be provided through Online instruction.


1) Online transmission, no matter what source is used, is not completely free of interference, static, pauses, echoes. (Earphones don’t always solve these problems) In addition, the sound or tone of an acoustic piano is somewhat marred over Skype. Even using Go to Office, tone was somewhat improved though not yet perfected. (For better audio, I use a Yeti mic, instead of my Mac’s internal mic)

While on certain days or times, a complete lesson may flow smoothly without electronic impediment, there will more than likely be periods when both parties will have to sign off, and re-sign on to establish a better connection.

After a while, this is something both student and teacher accept as part of the current landscape, though improvements in technology are in progress.

2) Two pianos cannot not play at the same time, as there may be a time lag that affects synchronized efforts. (Forget duet playing as an option)

3) The etiquette of Skyping or web-caming is that the teacher and student speak or play separately. This requires mutual patience.

4) Singing over a playing is not advised, since it poses the same overlay of complications, though I can’t seem to stop my spontaneous vocalizing Online or offline.

SUPPLEMENTS to web-cam instruction

I find it advantageous to send videos to my Online private students during the week, (at no extra charge) that review the assignment and highlight practicing goals. These run about 15 minutes and are transmitted as UNLISTED or PRIVATE You Tubes.

In a few cases, pupils have sent me video updates of their practicing to which I shoot back a responsive one, or provide a written critique of what has improved and/or needs more focus.

Video sharing is enormously helpful and seems indispensable to Online instruction.

Theory instruction can also be a valued adjunct to private lessons. It can be scheduled mid-week, or at the end of the month to enrich piano study.

Group Webcam Lessons

This is a relatively a new universe of piano teaching. POWHOW features piano lesson sign-ups in a class or private one-to-one setting.

Currently I teach a tone production class that had its maiden voyage a few months ago.

In this setting, I have boxes to tap when checking the progress of individual students, a mind-boggling concept to entertain. Take a look:

On both sides there are mute buttons, and one that permits a student not to be seen by other class members.

Otherwise with individual piano students, there’s only one box to keep track of.

A Word about teaching children Online

I haven’t mentioned my experiences Skyping private lessons to children. This is an area where the verdict is not yet in.

My inclination is NOT to teach raw beginners Online. 5 to 10-year olds need close monitoring and the physical presence of a teacher at the inception of learning. The right chemistry and the quality of a personal/musical relationship with a youngster are paramount to the success of lessons.

In addition, duet playing which is a valuable teaching and ear-training activity in the early years, especially, is not feasible with current technology.

Older children, perhaps, who are at Intermediate or Advanced levels, with good attention spans, would be better candidates for Skyped instruction.

One parent in Oregon hired me to teach his 8-year old, and while these web-cam lessons were productive, it was my decision to ultimately refer her to a private teacher in her area.

Here is one of our SKYPED lessons. In this case, we had set up a video exchange for easy back and forth musical sharing.


When all is said and done, Online piano lessons are the wave of the future. Just as cell phones have replaced land lines, taking private and group lessons over the Internet, with improved transmission in the offing, will be considered second nature.

More Examples of Skyped lessons:

Setting up for a Skype lesson to London, England:

A Skyped Lesson to Sydney Australia (piano technique)

Skyping between California and Greece:

Logitech close-up views of the keyboard:

Once again, compare to LIVE lessons (East Bay, California–I’ve relocated to Berkeley!)

Chopin A minor Waltz, No. 19, Op. Posthumous:

Play Through: