An elderly woman slowly gathered her briefcase and inched toward the piano classroom at 9 a.m. on the University of Miami campus. Once inside class, Rosalina Sackstein, a Cuban pianist and professor at the Frost School of Music, sprang to life.
“Good morning!” she said.
At 84, Sackstein is the eldest professor in the School of Music, and students and colleagues alike say she hasn’t lost a beat.
“She’s like a storm,” said Howard Na, a first-year piano performance graduate student who moved from California to study with her. “She’s got more spirit than any other faculty here.”
Sackstein, who has taught at Miami since 1962, said she sometimes experiences ailing health that – on one occasion earlier this year – prompted her to miss class. Yet retiring is not in her itinerary.
“If I am not needed, I don’t want to be here at all,” she said. “I can feel students need me.”
Not only is she teaching young minds, but Sackstein, a mother of three and grandmother of eight, considers herself a student, as well.
“I have to adjust to [the student’s] needs,” Sackstein said. “When I am teaching children, I will become a child and that’s how you can teach them.”
The technique Sackstein focuses on most for piano students is the position of hands. When she first started playing, her arms felt uncomfortable, but her teacher told her that the ache in her arms would disappear once she got used to it.
“I always objected to that,” Sackstein said.
Now she makes sure her students are always in the correct posture. Her strictness ensures they will play in pleasure, not pain.
One student often encountered problems after forgetting to raise her fingers up while playing. Instead of constantly reminding the pupil to hold her fingers up, Sackstein made her sit on the floor so her hands were lying completely flat on the keys. Soon enough “her hands were perfect” Sackstein said.
Simon Marin, a senior majoring in piano performance, has been studying with her since the age of six.
“Whenever I need extra help, I can go to her house so she can help me out,” Marin said. “She’s really like a family member to me. I owe everything to her, and that’s why I won’t go to any other school.”
Sackstein is known to utter a loud, “Oh my god,” when a student is off key, but if she sees a real effort being made, she’ll keep pressing until the sounds are sweet. She gives students three chances to fix the same mistake. If they haven’t gotten it by then, she moves on.
“Sometimes people think I have bad temper, but it’s not true!” Sackstein said.
It’s 2:50 p.m. and classes have closed, yet Sackstein is still on campus, answering questions nonstop as students walk in and out. This is what she does every day and will continue to do, as long as she is needed.
Click here read a profile about Aaron Rosand, the first performer for Sunday Afternoons of Music, a series of performances at UM in collaboration with Festival of Miami.
Debbie Kuan may be contacted at email@example.com.