Donald Rubinstein

The Last Time I Saw Madame Chaloff

I wrote these two short pieces about my teacher, Madame Margaret Chaloff, whom I studied with twice a week for nine months, in 1976-77.

Madame Margaret Stedman Chaloff was a piano teacher “who became legendary for her stellar roster of students, which included Leonard Bernstein, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Steve Kuhn, and Herbie Hancock.” Gene Seymour, Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians.

The Last Time I Saw Madame Chaloff


pictures I took in a photo booth the day I heard Madame died.

I recently wrote Kenny Werner. I heard hed both studied with and had written about Madame Margaret Chaloff. I studied with her in 1976-77 and I had a deeply affecting relationship with her. Kenny and I exchanged emails and had some of the same experiences. I too was taught “˜one note and I too had trouble grasping the concepts to which she had me aspire. She nevertheless affected me profoundly and it is possibly because I want to reinvest myself in the pathway of “˜spirit, that I am writing this over thirty years later. There is another personal reason. Until I wrote Kenny, I had hardly spoken to anyone about the few days before her passing in which I saw her twice.

The first time was on a Monday. It was to be my last lesson, and as luck or God would have it, my most deeply affecting. After my lesson, as I walked towards the door, Madame stopped me and asked me to continually lower my voice while I vocalized a sound. My voice took on a life of its own, filling the room with a power and breath beyond anything I had ever experienced. It startled us both. The whole room became my voice and I had no corporal sense beyond its enveloping presence. It is to this day one of a few experiences in which I have felt myself a small, yet integral part of a grand universe. It went beyond any otherworldly out of body experiences while either writing, performing or on drugs. As I left she leaned up to my ear and whispered, intently, “genius.” That whisper has helped support my life and invoking it gives me something to aspire to.

Madame died two days later. It was a Wednesday night if memory serves, though it would technically be Thursday morning, about 2 or 3 am. I went to see her some five hours before that and I have rarely spoken about it. It was partly because I am a private person and partly because I had no one to tell.

I went to see Madame about 9:30 pm the night she died. I had left my house at about 7 pm to teach guitar. On my way I passed an old antique shop. I felt drawn to it and though running late, I parked and went in. I saw a beautifully reproduced painting in an old wood frame. It turned out to be Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, with angels pouring roses onto her at the piano.

I bought the painting for about $10 and went off to teach. I finished sometime after nine, and having no social skills, I decided to go to Madames apartment to give her the painting. I felt strongly it was for her and was excited to give her this present. I knocked on her door and she greeted me with surprise. Im not sure what she died of, but she was perfectly fine when I saw her. She asked me with her excited, infectious voice, “What are you doing here?” I showed her the painting and she asked if Id ever been in her bedroom. “No!” I replied. She then said, “Go on in.” And so I did. I found the same exact painting, only larger, on the wall above her bed.

We sat in the parlor where she taught, and argued for about 5 minutes over who should have the painting. She wanted me to have it. She insisted it was for me. However, I was unfortunately stubborn (upon meeting Madame for the first time her exact words to me were, “Youre too stubborn, I cant teach you!”). As with many, I came to love her and I think she had a deep feeling for me. She taught me for $5 when I could afford it, or for free. She expressed a significant belief in me as an artist and a concern for me as a 24-year-old malady, though always with loving, compassionate support. I “˜unfortunately prevailed and left the painting and went home. I can still smile at the thought of her sweet annoyance when I would not take the painting.

I have no idea if she spoke to anyone else that night, nor do I know the circumstances of her passing. It seems quite possible that I was the last one to see her alive. I did not know her family, nor many of her other students. I was too shy to ask anyone about circumstance. I never mentioned the painting, though always regretted not taking that parting gift from her. I was devastated by her death. It was many years later before I was to see a copy of that painting again, though that is a story for another time.

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Madame Chaloff and The Gift of Flowers

I was on my way to my lesson with Madame Margaret Chaloff. It was 1976. I was 24 years old and had been studying piano with her, twice a week for a few months. I suddenly realized it was her birthday, stopped at a flower stand and picked out a small bouquet for a couple of bucks. It was all I could afford. They looked slightly crumpled, though I was thrilled to bring her a gift. Beaming, with flowers in hand, I knocked on her door. Upon its opening my mouth went agape. Inside her apartment were more flowers than I had ever seen in one place. They were everywhere. There were huge bouquets of assorted grandeur from admirers all over the world. I shyly presented mine, to which she beamed her approval and immediately put them in a vase.

When I came back the following week Madame greeted me with an unusually big smile. She pointed to my flowers, which were still alive along with a few others. When I came back a few days later yet, she greeted me at the door with a hug. She pulled me into the living room to show me the flowers I gave her, alive, well, and the “˜last ones standing. I will never forget what she said peering with her beautiful blues eyes into mine. She told me to always remember, “flowers last as long as the love with which theyre given.”

I have never forgotten. I have found her understanding to be true and always a world beyond what I could imagine (though I did not always know that at the time). It was Madame who gave me an unbreakable belief in my imagination. I had previously lived by it”“ worked by it”“ but never again would I doubt it. She showed me a world beyond; a world to aspire to, a world to trust.

©Donald Rubinstein, Santa Fe, August 2009

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  1. Louise Myers says:

    I’ve just read both pieces, and they brought tears to my eyes. You’ve been blessed, though you already know that. I’m presently writing an article on Madame Chaloff and have interviewed a number of her students–all of whom speak about her with the same warm and nearly mystical enthusiasm.

    Do you–or does anyone out there happen to have a photo of her–surprisingly hard to come by!

    Thanks for your words about her.

    • Doug Latto says:

      I was privileged to meet Madame Chaloff in the early 1970s through a college friend who was studying with her. One detail I’d like to add: my friend told me that she she frequently broke piano strings. I was skeptical, but once I went to see her, and, sure enough, there was a piano string hanging off the end of her grand piano. She appeared to be in her eighties at the time.

      • Hi Doug,

        Thanks so much for writing. I am just seeing all of these responses and I will write more later as I have time – Yes, she had an amazing way at the piano and I was aware of her reputation for breaking strings! I can still hear the sound she would make with one finger at the keyboard. It was transcendent.

    • Hi Louise, Thank you very much. I feel her energy through your experience and revisiting this piece. You are right. It is amazingly hard to come by a photo of her, though I see her in my minds eye right now. So sweet. She must have avoided them (photos), for some reason – that’s my guess…Thank you for writing. I hope you see this reply, as I just saw your post!

    • Hi Louise,

      How nice of you to say. Thank you. My guess is that for whatever reason she did not want to be photographed or filmed. I’m sure the opportunity was ever present. I”m here, alone late at night in a studio with a wonderful grand – playing and making art, still trying to emulate some of what she taught me. Be well.

  2. Robert Rotstein says:

    I too was a student of Madame Chaloff. Or, rather, I tried to be, but failed at it. Our philosophies were way too much at odds for us to be compatible. She was some kind of Christian/fudamentalist/spiritualist/mystic; I was – and remain – a radical, skeptical, Marxist pagan. She tried to imbue me with her philosophy; I tried to explain my objections to it. Both of us failed, completely. Her comment to you that “You’re too stubborn, I can’t teach you” would have been perfectly apropos for me, as I did stubbornly question and resist her attempts at indoctrination. She evidently regarded me as some wayward soul who needed to be shown the true, shining path. Then she would hand me off to one of her own students, to learn jazz piano. Curiously enough, I do happen to remember her exact first words upon meeting me: “So that’s what you look like!”

    But though our outlooks were radically opposed, I still liked her, in spite of it all. As you say, she was warm, generous, kind, a real trip to be with. She did not provide a heck of a lot of piano instruction; mostly, she just talked to me – or AT me – about various and sundry matters: people, situations, cultural attitudes. Most of it I scarcely remember. But I do recall that she was REALLY down on homosexuality, regarding it as some kind of repulsive monstrosity. (I’m not gay, never was). Upon further questioning, I learned that she was also kind of down on heterosexuality as well (though not as vehemently). I pointed out to her that she too had engaged in that practice. Well, she had “atoned”, or “made up for” that, she informed me. Curious, I prodded a little further – how would humanity propagate itself if we all were to renounce sexual intercourse? Well, she asserted, I might find it very hard to believe – but, she insisted, one of her own students had yielded a virgin birth! I thought to myself, this woman, as nice as she may be, is just too far gone. This alleged virgin birth had been somehow predicted, or anticipated, in some fashion, by her colleague Dr. Avram David, her acolyte and next door neighbor.

    Which brings me to a related incident. I think it was at our very first meeting (this all took place during the summer and fall of 1975) that it became apparent that we just did not see eye to eye on a great many issues. I had mentioned to her that I was reading a book about music that I was very enthusiastic about, that I thought was a real revelation. It was “Sound and Symbol, Music and the External World”, by Victor Zuckerkandl. She called in Dr. David from next door, I think to kind of size me up and put me in my proper place. I likewise told him about this book that I thought was terrific. Did I have an advanced degree in musicology, he inquired? No. Was I a professional musician? No. Well, then, he proclaimed, though my enthusiasm was commendable, I couldn’t possibly understand, or get anything out of this book. What a stuck up, pompous, asshole, I thought. Here is this guy who knows next to nothing about me and my abilities, and doesn’t even know the book I am talking about, yet he is so positive that I cannot possibly understand it. In retrospect, maybe I should have commended him for his audacious, daring confidence concerning a matter that he had no knowledge about. Instead, I got mightily pissed off, and shouted “Either he leaves or I leave!”. Madame Chaloff somehow pacified the situation and he left.

    Another time she decided to read my palm and find out about my past lives. Somehow (I forget the specifics) she passed her reading along to another one of her students/devotees, Rick St. Clair, who, I gather, produced the actual interpretation of the reading: I had once been in a position of considerable authority, “a king or a judge”, she said. But I had been somehow betrayed, and that had turned me into a miserable, embittered person. Well, I feel no sense of having once had much power or respect, in this or any other life. But she was dead right about my feeling a sense of betrayal, in lesser circumstances, from people that I trusted, a scenario that has repeated itself many times over.

    Here’s one example of how I challenged her: “We don’t play with our hands; we play with our breath”, she often stated. Then, one time when I was trying to do something at the piano, and doing it wrong, she got exasperated and excalaimed, “Move your wrist up and down – like a hinge!” I objected that this mechanical analogy was contrary to the notion of playing with one’s breath. Another time, she leaned on the far end of the piano as I played in my ungraceful fashion. She could feel vibrations from my “bad” hand movements coming up through the piano. Well, a piano is a physical device, I pointed out, so it is hardly surprising that it should transmit waves when a force is applied to it. Unless it could be somehow ascertained, via some sophisticated, subtle measuring device, that my waves were different in some crucial aspect from hers, or from someone else who played “correctly”. But she would have none of this: “Robert Rotstein, you are the most NEGATIVE person I’ve ever met!” Well, I thought to my myself, at least I’ve reached the superlative level in SOME dimension, even if it has to be a negative one.

    She also told me that, a few years prior, she had had some kind of stroke, and was rushed to a hospital. Her heart stopped beating for 45 minutes, she said, but she had an amazng recovery. She had been on the brink of being “over there”, on the “other side”, but she still made it back. I was later informed by a knowledgeable physician that this was quite impossible; after more than ten or fifteen minutes of no blood circulation, one would be quite dead. Either she was a truly transformed uber-frau, existing on another plane; or she was naïve and full of hogwash.

    But I liked her. And I believe she liked me. Our sessions lasted two or three hours at a time. Mostly talk, with some occasional instruction and playing tossed in. Once, after a very long session, I was getting so hungry, my stomach was bothering me, I asked her if I could have a little bite to eat. A little crust of bread would suffice. Well, she sprung into action and quickly prepared a fruit salad. She had sliced a lemon in two a placed it, upside down, in the fruit dish, for a little extra zest, I guess. I had never had fruit salad this way; I thought the lemon was a peach. I tried to cut it with my spoon, over and over; couldn’t do it. “You’re going to eat the lemon!” I exclaimed, “Wow! I was about to say, this is the toughest peach I’ve ever encountered!”. “Well, Robert Rotstein, you’re the toughest peach I’ve ever encountered!”. That must have been the biggest laugh I ever had at her apartment.

    But eventually, whatever level of rapport we had couldn’t be sustained. After one unpleasant session, I didn’t go back the following week. But she called me and expressed surprise. And some indignation, too, I thought. I was embarrassed and touched. So I did go back the following week. But it was a losing battle. She might have been a force of nature, but I was an unmoveable object. So I quit. About two years later, I was in the market for a second-hand piano, and thought she might know of someone who wanted to sell one. She nearly fell off the floor when I announced myself on the phone, after such a long absence. I think she was pleased that I chose to get in touch once again. She did know of someone who was selling an old upright. It turned out to be Rick St. Clair, the guy who “interpreted” my palm-reading. I did finally purchase his piano.

    I was with Madame Chaloff for about four or five months. Once, when I was there, Leonard Bernstein called her on the phone. Another time, one of her students called from Europe to announce that she had just won some piano competition.
    She never asked me for a dollar for all her time.

    • Hi Robert,

      Thank you for responding. I of course understand your experience. I have heard from some other folks who had a similar one. We just never went there. I didn’t respond when occasionally she would make some inference to the topics mentioned. I would look at her like she was crazy and she understood and said ‘ok.’ She let it go and went back to the work at hand. She spoke to my true need and to the enactment of my creative soul.

      I knew Avram as well, and studied composition with him for a short while. Yes, he was not her, of course. A brilliant man, though he had problems of the ego and perhaps not enough recognition. As the years pass, I think well of him and his creative soul, despite the fact that I stopped working with him for reasons similar to those you mentioned. I gained some important musical support during my short time around him.

      I appreciate your response and experience and thank you for sharing it. Yes, in the end, she was an amazing soul, whom I am very grateful to have worked with and known. She was magical and deep.

  3. I am a decendent of this woman you speak of. I never had the pleasure to meet her. Ive seen some old family videos of her playing the piano at family gatherings as well as many other interesting findings. I found your article refreshing and interesting. Many of the things you have mentioned i recall being taught as a child sitting at piano staring at my fathers hands trying to transfer what was left from her to me. The importance of the feeling of how you hit a key among other things. It unfortunately has been many years since i truly played. I wish i hadnt given it up. I wish i knew more about her,but its very hard to find info so much has been scattered. Which is why i enjoyed reading this. Sometimes i miss thr music so in a rare occasion i go play margaretts piano(we had it fully restored)and try to feel the music and history that went through that old steinway. I recall my father saying her life was that piano. So as weird as it sounds i feel connected to…everything .. when i play her piano. When serges brother passed much of the history died with him. So its nice to still find stories to learn more about my own musical heritage and how much appreciation people had.

    • Dear ‘Family Member,’

      It is lovely to hear from you and I’m sure for others who read your note. She was a very special woman – complex and full of love – a dedication to the creative spirit which attracted people like myself. It’s nice to think of her piano having been restored and nicer yet to think of you playing and feeling the spirit of Madame’s presence and history.

      With best regards,

      Donald Rubinstein

    • Hi; you mention on this blog that you are a descendant of Margaret Chaloff. I’m an amateur jazz historian (and jazz musician) and recently learned that her son, Serge, is buried at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, not far from a late friend of mine. The cemetery informed me that there is no marker on his grave and I find that to be unfortunate for such an important musician. I’m interested in possibly raising funds to erect a marker on Serge’s grave but the cemetery rightly suggests I obtain the permission of the family. Do you know who the closest surviving relative of Serge would be? If you could provide contact information I would appreciate it.
      Steve Piermarini

    • karen hall says:

      Hi, I studied with and became good friends with mdme in 1973/74… I would like to offer you some time at the piano and show you her method first hand. She taught me how to feel my arm as a bird flies, as one motion of an animal who is always in the right position to just fly”. She taught me that my inner strength, light was all my bird needed to have to the power to form the “finger tone” of its beak and the “hand tone” of its wings in my wrist. I’ll offer you a lesson if you let me play her piano again. I’ve often wondered how that old gem plays restored. I remember reading the article about its restoration. I’m glad I remember it when it was talking a good beating by so many fine pianists. I live in NH now and when I’m in Boston I love to go sit on the bench on Comm Ave by her old windows and remember those pretty lights and plants glowing from her apartment

  4. I Imagine it’s evident in my stories, which speak the sparkling truth of my experience with Madame Margaret Chaloff. I want to say, in her memory, that she was spectacular. A true visionary and yes, possibly a flawed person in some ways.
    Aren’t we all and isn’t reach and transformation what life is all about? One never knows where people come from in terms of early life, though whomever Madame was, she transformed herself into a guiding light – a true spirit for people to see and emulate, and in my case – to share – She gave me something which was at the core of my ‘need’ and she gave it selflessly. She was the true meaning of ‘teacher’ in my experience.

    • Louise Myers says:

      What a wonderful string of comments. I’ve been plugging away for several months now interviewing people who studied with her and trying to get to a point where I can write a thorough profile of her. Of course, the longer I’ve worked on this history the more nuanced and complicated the portrait has become. She was indeed a complex person, flawed in her outlook perhaps, yet extraordinarily generous, in every sense. For the record, in terms of her early life, Margaret grew up in Illinois with her younger brother and sister, her mother and her maternal grandmother. Her father had left the family and it seems that economically they had to fend for themselves. It’s so gratifying to hear from others about Madame Chaloff; she still matters a great deal to many people.

  5. Hi Louise,

    Thanks for this information. It’s good to hear. Good luck with the piece. We are all flawed in so many ways and perfect in others. Madame’s goodness was a gift of flowers unlike any other. I appreciate her always for that – for her undying gratitude and goodness.

    My Best,



  6. Allen Lowe says:

    I never studied with her, but a good friend and excellent pianist did complain that she made frequent anti-semitic comments.

  7. Allen,

    I cannot comment on that. I am Jewish and never heard one even vaguely anti-semitic remark from Madame Chaloff. She did once show me a picture of Jesus, though when I readily frowned (as I was not particuarly fond of any relgious approaches), she turned it upside down on the piano, said aloud, “all right,” and never mentioned it again. Fairly comical actually. It was no secret she was a devoted follower of Jesus in whatever form that took for her, though I for one was never subjected to even the hint of anything even slightly prejudicial or in any way coersive. I think it was her intent to teach me how to access the ‘transcendent spirit of music’ and that was what she stuck too.

  8. karen hall says:

    Hi, again. Mdme told me she had “studied all the religions to find out why god had taken my son. I found my light and that was what I was looking for. I particularly liked the religions who worshipped animals so I teach students to use their inner light to help their favorite animal play”.