Piano Teacher Remembers a Career Spanning More Than 50 Years

(Ksenija Olmer, Photographer)
Eileen Klatsky recently retired from her long career as a piano teacher when Covid-19 made in-person lessons impossible.

    The youngsters whose fingers once thumped and caressed the keys of Elaine Klatsky’s Steinways are gone now, but the mark the former music teacher made on their lives remains.
    The 88-year-old Orinda resident gave her final lesson in March after spending more than a half-century sharing her love of classical music with students from 6-year-olds to retirees.
    “[There are] 88 keys on the piano, so that seemed like a good time,” said Klatsky, half-joking about her decision to stop at the point that the pandemic would have necessitated switching to virtual lessons.
    It was a difficult choice for someone whose entire life revolved around music.
    The New Jersey native recalled her father’s large collection of classical music records as well as attending concerts as a child, noting her Jewish heritage valued classical music performances and lessons. “I’ve been steeped in it for many years,” she said.
    Klatsky graduated with a degree in music from New York University and immediately began teaching at a music school in Boston, Mass., as well as performing in recitals.
    Becoming an educator was a natural choice because both her parents were teachers, she said, adding that she wasn’t cut out to be a stay-at-home housewife.
    After moving to Orinda in 1963, she began teaching when first one, then another member of the Oakland Symphony asked Klatsky to teach their children. As word of her services spread, her home-based business grew.
    So did her involvement in the music community: at various points in her career, Klatsky has been a judge for several music organizations as well as serving as president of the Contra Costa County branch of the Music Teachers’ Association of California, the Contra Costa Performing Arts Society and Berkeley Piano Club. She also chaired a symposium on Hungarian composer Béla Bartók at an annual convention of music teachers.
    Klatsky’s lost count of how many pupils she has schooled over the years and doesn’t skip a beat when asked which classical greats’ work they have experienced. “What composers have I not taught?” Klatsky chuckled. Handel and Haydn, Schumann and Chopin, Bach and Brahms – students have done it all under her firm-but-kind tutelage. “I like to say that I set high standards and lovingly enforced them,” she said.
    Klatsky auditioned prospects before taking them on to find out whether they had musical ability and the interest to learn, said Orinda resident Ksenija Olmer, whose youngest daughter was around six when she started lessons.
    Once accepted, Klatsky expected to assume a measure of responsibility for their education, which included music theory and participating in the recitals the teacher held as well as performing at Music Teachers’ Association of California conventions and Junior Bach Festivals.
    “If kids didn’t practice she would drop them,” Olmer said. “She expected a certain standard of behavior and responsibility, but she did it in a really nice way.” And youngsters put in the work, not out of fear of a scolding but because they didn’t want to disappoint their teacher, she said.
    Klatsky’s commitment to her pupils, however, went beyond aiming for a mastery of the keyboard. She talked to teens about what they were doing in school and their hopes for the future, providing emotional support for young people who didn’t have an extended family nearby. “She was kind of a constant presence in the lives of these kids. She saw them more often than their own grandmom,” Olmer said.
    Klatsky’s requirement that students behave themselves and dress properly when they took part in recitals at the Berkeley Piano Club prepared them for success in life, she added. And they have: many of her former students have graduated from ivy league universities and some now work in the arts according to Klatsky who noted a former Hollywood producer once called her out of the blue to thank her for her efforts. Students also grew to love classical music performances, an appreciation she believes she helped foster.
    Klatsky’s legacy lives on with Olmer’s daughter, Naya. Now 28, she still heads to the piano when she comes home for a visit and invariably expresses gratitude for her former music teacher.
    Klatsky notes her own daughter continues to enjoy applying the skills she learned from her mother as well.
    Even though she’s no longer giving lessons, Klatsky hasn’t forsworn the piano. She still plays in a trio as well as performing at churches, convalescent hospitals and other venues with another pianist.

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