Spring Fever and The Eternal Optimist

This blog is dedicated to my father, William Hobart Balter,  whose birthday is today April 20th. My dad was the definition of an optimist… he always saw the bright side of every situation. This trait led him to be hugely successful in all areas of his life. He had a long happy marriage, was the owner of seven department stores, was widely respected as an attorney and was a great father, brother, son and friend to many. The best way to describe him was that he was completely fierce; he never took, “no” for an answer. My mother says that as an attorney he would ONLY take cases if they were completely impossible. He loved the challenge and always expected a fabulously positive outcome.

Every spring I cannot stop thinking about my father- not just because of his birthday but because I look for ways I can incorporate that same optimism into my own life even more fully .  All the personality traits that I so deeply admired about my father I see occurring naturally in Spring.  Hope, optimism, perseverance and renewal accompany the delicious sights and smells of April. 

I was reminded of all this as I walked through my garden where I encountered a lone lily blossoming in a field of agapanthus leaves….  the most amazing lily I have ever seen!! Growing up in Pittsburgh’s long winters, I couldn’t wait to see flowers and even though I have lived in California for quite some time I still have this same intoxicating feeling about Spring. Of course I’m not the only one who is completely taken with the season. Every thought-provoking innovator from Shakespeare to Stravinsky has had something to say about Spring. As humans we are drawn to the natural cycle of rebirth and the opportunity to make ourselves better. Spring fever has me super excited to be working on new music and new projects.

And I do find it downright inspiring that my niece Sophie Egan, who is only 29, has her first book DEVOURED coming out  on May 3rd  . Meanwhile her father, Timothy Egan, has his eighth book THE IMMORTAL IRISHMAN currently at number eight on the New York Times Best Seller list after peaking at number four.  Another Father- Daughter cycle continues…

It's all so divine...Everywhere I look I see that spring has… well…sprung !!!


The Beat Goes On!

One of my favorite things about being a piano teacher is my relationship with my students. I am kind of like a cousin/big sister/ member of the family… and it really is familial. I am there for birthdays, holidays, weddings and all of the life- events. And I’m in a lot of families which makes it really fun.

During the holidays, students who have gone off to college typically visit and take lessons just for the time that they are  back. After all it is really hard to see someone every Monday for 12 years and then all of a sudden they are going to college and you don’t see each other anymore. Well it doesn’t usually happen like that with me. My students can’t wait to show me what they’re working on or at least want to say, “hi”.

One of my favorite students that I’ve ever had, Hannah, recently came over. She’s just back from her first semester at Berklee College of Music. It was thrilling for me to see her, not only because I miss and love her, but to watch her play and get an idea of what she’s been working on. I was surprised at the ease she told me that she was practicing 3-4 hours a day because I remember the time I told her she needed to step up her practicing to 1-2 hours and she burst out crying, “No! That’s impossible”. But she was only in 8th grade then and today I could hear a better tone than I’ve ever heard and I could sense maturity in her that I hadn’t seen before… She always just had serious talent.

I didn’t know Hannah just as a student- I had many dinners at her house and attended many of her family's events.  So as a result I feel very close to her. Before she left for Berklee we went on a trip to Disneyland, just her and I, because I wanted her to hear my friends Allee and Val,  who were playing in an all-girl band at Tomorrowland Terrace. I wanted her to see the possibilities… Last year, Hannah and her family came out to hear me play with Vinx at Genghis Cohen and we all had dinner together- Vinx, the other musicians, Hannah, her family and me. It was an amazing evening and I got to really introduce Hannah to Vinx who happens to be on the Berklee Faculty.

Another one of my wonderful students Justin, a marvelous pianist and composer who became a doctor instead of a musician, always took lessons everyday when he came back on college vacations. Recently he took up residency at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, so we went out for breakfast before he left LA. Midway through the breakfast…out they came ...a set of headphones so I could hear his newest compositions.

Then there’s the weddings….I had a great time at Justin's wedding a few years ago.  Recently I went to Sabrina’s wedding- who hadn’t studied with me since she was a little girl.  It’s so much fun seeing my students as adults and I especially loved having dinner with Sabrina and her new husband.

The next generation is coming in… I started teaching Randall and his wonderful Mom Adrienne when Randall was 14… Now I am teaching Randall’s nine year old son … and Randall and Adrienne and Pamela, Randall’s sister and soon her son who just turned 5.

I’m always so proud to see my students become successful. What a thrill !!!

My first students in LA were Jane Fonda’s children and Troy Garity has become such a successful actor… Catch him in BALLERS and  BARBERSHOP among many others. I love running into him around town.

Then there’s Alice Eve (ENTOURAGE, THE MOVIE) who studied with me as a little girl before moving back to England and beginning her career as an actress.

I had a big surprise seeing my former student Billie Lourd singing on Jimmy Fallon. She was singing with incredible ease and Jimmy Fallon knew that she loved singing. I remember teaching her as a 6th or 7th grader to sing and play my sophisticated jazzy arrangement of SUMMERTME,  I was so proud to find out that she had a big role in SCREAM QUEENS and… the new STAR WARS !!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yup… The beat goes on! My little ones keep getting taller, growing up and moving on …and thankfully there are lots of new students that I get to share the joy of life with…

Happy 2016!!!!!! 

The Real Deal: Working With Sanaa Lathan

The Real Deal: Sanaa Lathan

Coaching Sanaa Lathan to play an R&B singer/songwriter/keyboard player in HBO’s Disappearing Acts was one of the most rewarding projects I've ever worked on. To begin with Sanaa is a doll: fun, real, joyous, loyal, interested in everything and willing to work hard on stuff. She truly loved learning piano (and studying with me, of course).... so much that she continued her lessons with me for quite a while after her coaching for the film was over.  

Since we spent so much time together Sanaa felt like a friend.  She was very respectful and loyal, constantly showing me off and asking me to play my original pieces for everyone on set. That relationship is one that I do cherish.

with Sanaa Lathan

Sanaa's lessons began in Los Angeles but as we started moving forward she insisted I go on set with her. So for six weeks, March 21- May 6th, 2000, I was in New York with her...Which were needless to say... a total blast!!   Sanaa was staying at the Essex House at 59th and Central Park South, with a piano in her gorgeous suite. And I was staying up the street at my Uncle’s fabulous apartment at 69th and 5th Ave., and so everyday I walked to the Essex House to give her a lesson.

Disappearing Acts starred Sanaa & Wesley Snipes, and was directed by Gina Prince Bythewood. I had an initial meeting with Gina at her house where we talked about all kinds of stuff. I liked Gina immediately and still have the utmost respect for her.  Gina & Sanaa had their first collaboration just before Disappearing Acts on a film called Love & Basketball  which became a HUGE hit and propelled them both onto stardom. The premiere for Love & Basketball was in Los Angeles while we were shooting in New York and Sanaa even insisted that they fly me back to LA for the premiere as part of the deal. That was so beautiful and kind of her. Love & Basketball is a wonderful film and in case you have never seen it, I highly recommend you do.

With Gina Prince Bythewood

The music supervisor, Barry Cole, was incredible and I am forever grateful to him. I composed a piece for Disappearing Acts called “Franklin’s Hands” which we recorded in the pre-records and shot, but it ended up not making it into the film.  Barry gave me a real shot at having my music in this film and he even got me my first arranging credit for a song called “Knuckles”. In 2004 he ended up hiring me again for a pivotal film in my career, Beauty Shop.  I absolutely adore Barry and always try to spend time with him whenever I am in New York.

The pre-records and the recording sessions for the film were at the world famous Hit Factory with Wyclef Jean’s younger siblings, Melky & Sedeck. It was amazing to be part of these sessions. Melky/Sedeck and I got along great and really enjoyed working on music together. There were many other fantastic musicians there like Mos Def and Wyclef Jean, who was at most of the sessions. I loved the enthusiasm of all these incredible music people. 

I was on set for 9 scenes that had piano playing or singing in them.  There was a different type of camaraderie on set than on any other film I had worked on. It was probably because the film's author, director and many of the producers were female which I later learned was intentional.  In an interview with the LA Times, Gina said, "Having numerous women on the set was integral to setting the right mood during filming."  

You never know who you're going to meet. On Disappearing Acts I met people that had a major positive impact on my life. What a great experience…  


The Real Deal....Working With Tom Cruise

The Real Deal: Working With Tom Cruise
Say Yes To Everything

I have Holly Hunter to thank for DIRECTLY recommending me to Tom Cruise. It happened while they were working together on the movie THE FIRM.  Holly had already shot THE PIANO and Tom was getting ready to shoot INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.

It started with a five hour scheduling phone call from Paris, back when you still paid for international calls by the minute.  We scheduled five weeks every day, 35 hour and a half lessons. I couldn’t have been more thrilled to be teaching Tom Cruise for his upcoming role in, “Interview With The Vampire”. He needed to learn two pieces: Haydn’s Piano Sonata in Eb No. 59 on piano and La Dauphine by Rameau on harpsichord.

On the phone we had worked everything out except the address, which they promised to give me by the time the lessons started. However the day before the start date… I still hadn’t been given an address…. so I had to call them. No response. Yikes!


The next morning at 11AM, the day lessons were scheduled to start, I finally got a call saying they wouldn’t be able to start until a day later and, “By the way- the director is coming. Can you play the whole piece for him while he blocks out the camera angles?” (I had only been asked to play a small segment and this was a 45-minute piano sonata….) “Yes, I can do that.” So I stayed up all night practicing the whole piece.

Morning finally rolled around and it was nearly 9 AM when my phone rang, “Can you come an hour early?” “Yes, I’ll be there.” So I raced from my home in West Hollywood to the Pacific Palisades, took a deep breath, knocked on the door, and Tom answered with a big smile, “Hi, I’m Tom.”

No kidding...I had bought a set of fangs… and it was my intention to pitch the director, Neil Jordan, on using my neck in the movie. I thought it would be a great deal for the production company to use my neck (aka me as an actress) AND have me as an on-set advisor. Most of the film was shot in New Orleans and London so it was going to be a fun pitch. I did bring out the fangs on day one and we all had a laugh. However the director was in a hurry, seemed unimpressed and I had stayed up all night practicing for no reason, as I never had to play the piece!!!

It was so exciting to see a piano in one room and a harpsichord in the other room at Tom’s house. Tom had never studied any musical instruments and he was really excited too. We did have to change harpsichords in the middle of the stream so to speak. The harpsichord that they had originally chosen only had one keyboard manual but the piece  they had chosen required two manuals. I had to go to the production company and convince the art department etc to change the harpsichord based on the piece. I was even hoping for a music consultant credit.

Tom was a fantastic student. A beginner… but focused and dedicated.  And super nice, fun, enthusiastic and he basically said, “Yes” to everything…He had a very intense schedule for this movie packed with fencing, French and many other lessons. He would call me on his speakerphone while playing the pieces and ask if he was doing it right… It was so endearing. He loved the lessons and said he was going to continue studying piano with me for the rest of his life.  Yes, Tom…. Anytime- I’m waiting!


I hope you enjoy these these excerpts of Haydn’s Piano Sonata in Eb No. 59.

PS  Be sure to catch Tom in his newest film MISSION IMPOSSIBLE:ROGUE NATION and Congrats to Tom and Cousin Don on a job very well done!

The Real Deal.... Working with Sandra Bullock

Irwin Winkler’s film “The Net”, my fourth piano coaching credit, was an absolute blast. Everything about it was spot on: my students Sandra Bullock and Diane Baker, the deal Columbia gave me, the respect I received on all fronts and so many little things. It was a really great team to be a part of. I run into Irwin around town, particularly at the Jewish Holidays and we talk about how much fun we had with that film.

The star, Sandra Bullock has continued to be one of my favorite students ever! She was hard working, kind and super fun....A total doll and dream student. Sandra was already a star having been in Jan de Bont’s, “Speed” but it was still early in her career and she was just so cool to be around. Her energy made everyone around her feel just the way I did in this picture of us.

The scene we worked on featured Chopin’s Nocturne Opus 32, No. 1. ..Not an easy piece but she took on the challenge and by the end of our lessons she had it completely mastered (Click Here to See That). The sound you hear on the film is both Sandra and Diane playing… and that says a lot.

When they sent me the script I recommended three Chopin pieces that I knew and had previously performed: Eb major nocturne, B minor waltz and B major nocturne. They did end up choosing a B major nocturne but the wrong one, NOT the one I knew!

And you never know when things will get crossed off your bucket list… The day of the shoot Army Archerd (legendary columnist for Daily Variety) was visiting the set. Two days later I got a call that he had written an article about his set visit  and had even mentioned me. It was a long time goal of mine to be in his column…. And there it was!

When I imagined working in Hollywood, this is definitely how I imagined it... 


Thought I would include a video of me playing the same excerpt of Chopin's B Major Nocturne that Sandra and Diane played. Hope you enjoy it! 

Happy Mother's Day!

PRECIOUS TREASURE: Thoughts on Mother’s Day.

My Mom, Alma, is and always has been extraordinary, even though she doesn’t think of herself that way.  In fact, she’d be mortified if she knew I was writing this.  She doesn’t like to call attention to herself. Although she went to law school when there were no other females in the class, was a handbag buyer in my father’s business as well as being a great homemaker and traveled all over the world to exotic places like China, India, Russia, and Europe, she thinks of herself as just a normal human without realizing she and the people in her family were enormously inspiring…

Her mother, Edith, was one of 8 children in the Firestone Family.   Her grandfather Henry Firestone was from Hungary and  was a philanthropist/     businessman who brought over many Hungarian families to the US. He gave them a place to live, jobs and helped them get their feet on the ground. The Firestones owned property in a small town in western Pennsylvania where they had a grocery store, a meat market, a natatorium and several farms.  They were a happy cultured family that loved cooking, big gatherings, and music… They even had a family orchestra! 

Alma's father, Abraham Marcus Simon was one of 6 of the Simon Family.  Abe’s father was a jeweler who died in San Francisco when Abe was 13. So as a young boy Abe had to take care of his mother, sisters and brothers.  Abe became a prominent attorney who is still studied in Pennsylvania law books. His sister, my great Aunt Sophie was a passionate journalist and poet. She was an advocate for social reform and through her writings became the founder and president of the Child Welfare Committee of America.  One of my favorite things to do in New York is to visit the Sophie Irene Loeb Statue, located in Central Park at 76th and Fifth Ave. It has some of her quotations on it as well as Alice in Wonderland characters.  Sophie was quite the character herself- she was friends with Mayor Fiorello and was a pallbearer at Houdini’s funeral. Abe’s brother, Dave and sister Jenny, were interested in show business and each of their children became Academy Award nominees for Best Supporting Actress of 1944 and Best Picture of 1950.

I think of this incredible ancestry and it really inspires me.  It is truly my backbone and  my source of strength in all things.  It is who I am and what I lean on. I’ve inherited so much from Alma and her family.  This is what I think about when I am in trouble or need help... 

I always thank my Mom because she taught me everything that is important: honesty, integrity, work ethic, fairness, fun, passion, love, and ALL the things that really matter to me as a human being. 

My heart goes out to those who have lost their mothers. I can feel the pain of that as well as the march of time.

I am unbelievably grateful to have my Mom here with me.  She is a precious treasure and I am cherishing  every moment with her.

Happy Mother’s Day to all.