Rosalina Sackstein had Ludwig van Beethoven’s touch on the piano. That’s because Sackstein, a longtime professor at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, was a musical descendant of the famed composer.
A little history: In 1801, Beethoven tutored 10-year-old Carl Czerny on the piano. Czerny, an Austrian composer, then taught composer Franz Liszt, who did the same for Martin Krause. The German concert pianist Krause, in turn, tutored Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau in 1911.
Sackstein’s mentor: Arrau. This made Sackstein, who died Feb. 14 at 93 of complications from osteoporosis, the pupil of a pupil of a pupil of a pupil of Beethoven.
Sackstein, who spent 50 years educating thousands of students at UM and at her Miami home, would have made the classical masters — and her mother, Rosalina Santana — proud.
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Sackstein, born Dec. 5, 1923, in Matanzas, Cuba, as Rosalina Guerrero Santana, started playing piano at 4. Her mother supervised the daily 5 a.m. practices. She studied at the Conservatory of Music in Camaguey and received her doctorate in music pedagogy from the University of Havana.
Son Dr. Robert Sackstein, a Harvard physician, notes that his mother was the first to receive a scholarship sponsored by the Cuban government to study piano abroad in New York City, where she began her tutelage under Arrau in 1949. She also studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia with pianist Isabelle Vengerova, who had taught Leonard Bernstein piano.
In a 1995 Miami Herald Tropic article, Sackstein recalled the early influence of her mother and those early morning practices.
“With me, there were no problems. But my sister: She would make mistakes, and it would infuriate my mother so much, she would spank her. I used to say, ‘My God, my sister’s dumb. If she knows my mother’s going to punish her, why doesn’t she just play it right the first time?’ ”
For decades, Sackstein strictly used, and taught, the Beethoven piano technique of hand/elbow positioning at the keyboard. Her students included Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero, who played at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration; conductor Elaine Rinaldi, founder and artistic director of Orchestra Miami; as well as her own children and grandchildren — many of whom followed her into artistic careers.
In the segregated 1960s, she weathered protests from some neighbors because she insisted on teaching black students in her home. Her son remembered those contentious days: “When I was a child, I would literally get into fistfights because my peers made derogatory comments about my mother.”
Sackstein liked working with children, even if they were recalitrant at times. “I have a tremendous reputation of being really a tyrant. But never with children,” Sackstein told the Miami Herald in 1995. “I understand the child very well. You have to nurture them and let them develop and blossom. I don’t think a child’s mentality is inferior to an adult’s. You don’t make it easier. You just make it enticing and challenging.”
My mother never charged for a lesson if someone could not afford it. It was always about the gift of the art, not about economics.
Son Dr. Robert Sackstein
Sackstein inspired her own kin. Daughter Rosalina “Rosy” Sackstein-Roitstein is a music teacher and performing flautist in California whose three children — Matthew, Andrew and Alina — are musicians. Son-in-law David Roitstein, one of her students, is director of the jazz program at the California Institute of the Arts. Grandson Louis Aguirre is co-anchor of the syndicated entertainment newsmagazine, “The Insider,” and was previously co-anchor of WSVN’s “Deco Drive.”
When Aguirre was a child, his grandmother, “Mama,” often babysat him while she taught piano lessons from her South Miami home. That home, with its two grand pianos in the living room and upright in the music room, fascinated a young Aguirre. There, he would hear Beethoven sonatas, Chopin, “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin.
“My favorite thing to do as a little boy was crawl under the baby grand as my grandmother would play,” Aguirre said. “She exposed me to that beautiful music as a kid and developed my love for music.”
“Mama” also gave her grandson jigsaw puzzles of artists like Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Michelangelo to encourage him in the arts, to draw and to be creative, Aguirre said. “I know I am who I am because of her influence.”
Said her daughter Rosy: “Mom’s legacy goes beyond to thousands of students who are either now professors or department chairs or concert pianists or conductors or composers. They look to her as a mother figure. She was the professor of professors.”
In her 93 years of life, she saw war, revolution, and peace. In a moment of painful closure, she even learned that she outlived Fidel Castro. She was both a prodigy and a refugee, but to me, she was my grandmother, who shared with me a life of music and love.
David Sackstein on Facebook about Rosalina Sackstein
In addition to her career at UM, which included chairing the keyboard department and serving on the Women’s Advisory Committee on Academic Affairs, she served as president, from 1980 to 2012, of the Miami Civic Music Association, South Florida’s oldest concert series.
Under the leadership of Charles Crandon in the 1930s, the association brought musicians like Sergei Rachmaninoff to Miami. Sackstein similarly booked major talents like English pianist Stephen Hough, American soprano Helen Donath and Vienna’s Beethoven Trio into UM’s Maurice Gusman Concert Hall.
“Rosalina was a force in life and in music. When I arrived at the Frost School, although she was our oldest and longest-serving faculty member, she was one of the first to embrace change, and encouraged her colleagues to follow. Her teaching was life-altering and her standards were unbendingly high. She was one of a kind,” said Shelton G. Berg, dean of the Frost School of Music at UM.
I’m something of an idealist, and perhaps because I’m a pianist and teacher I understand how much the young need a chance to be heard.
Rosalina Sackstein, as president of Miami Civic Music Association, in a 1985 Miami Herald story.
Sackstein’s career almost didn’t materialize. She was divorced from her first husband and a single mother to son Louis J. Aguirre and touring as a concert pianist in her adopted home of New York when she met Harold Charles Sackstein. The couple wed in 1952, moved to Havana, had two children and were married for 58 years when he died in 2010.
Castro’s revolution led the family to Miami in 1960. “When they arrived in the United States, Papa was unable to find support from his U.S.-based family. His decision to marry Mama, a Catholic Cuban citizen, had created a rift between him and his very traditional Jewish parents,” grandson David Sackstein wrote on Facebook. The couple, and the three children, moved into a small home with some of her relatives. Her once illustrious music career went on hold.
For the first time, Sackstein had no piano in her house. She found a job as a cashier at the former S.S. Kresge department store in downtown Miami.
Son Robert remembers how, as a boy, he would often sit in her booth at Kresge and watch as customers marveled at how fast Sackstein’s fingers flew across the cash register keys. “People were saying, ‘You ought to be a pianist,’ and she would say, ‘I am a concert pianist.’ ”
Sackstein found work as a music librarian at UM — a foot in the door, daughter Rosy said. A music teacher went on sabbatical and a group of students were in need of a skilled pianist for a performance at the university. Sackstein explained that their piece was a part of her repertoire.
Faculty took notice of her talent and pedigree. After she earned an additional master’s degree in education at UM, she was offered a position to teach at the music school in 1963. Sackstein was the first recipient of the Phillip and Patricia Frost Award for Excellence in Teaching and Scholarship and the oldest professor on faculty when she retired 50 years later at 89.
She was a marvelous pianist and inspiring partner.
JB Floyd, emeritus chair, department of keyboard performance, at UM Frost School of Music
“Rosie, to her many admiring and appreciative colleagues, was an active and extremely positive force in the cultural life of Miami, and especially the remarkable development of the School of Music of the University of Miami,” said JB Floyd, emeritus chair in the department of keyboard performance at Frost School of Music. Floyd often played in tandem with Sackstein at two piano concerts.
Sackstein, Floyd said, “didn’t wait for remarkable piano students to enroll at UM. She developed them from the talented 5- and 6-year-olds here in South Florida and also from students who came to Miami just to have the guidance of this great teacher.”
In addition to her three children, Sackstein is survived by nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Donations can be made to the Sackstein Research Fund at the Harvard Institute of Medicine, Room 671, 77 Avenue Louis Pasteur, Boston, Ma., 02115.
A viewing was held from 7 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19, at Caballero Rivero Funeral Home, 8200 Bird Rd. Funeral Mass was at 11 a.m. Monday, Feb. 20, at Epiphany Catholic Church, 8235 SW 57th Ave., Miami.