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. Matt Horner says:

    Thank you so much !
    I studied piano with her in 1975 for eight months
    I’m still trying to fly like a bird..