How I Became a Pianist: My Personal Piano Story

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Welcome to, I’m Robert Estrin. Today I’m going to share my personal story about how I became a pianist. You might think that it would be obvious. Many of you know that my father, Morton Estrin, was a concert pianist. My sister is also a pianist. I’ve been surrounded with pianists and pianos my whole life! So you might think it’s the most natural thing in the world that I ended up being a pianist. Far from it!

I’ve always loved music.

I had the opportunity to start piano studying with my father when I was seven years old. Shortly thereafter, in fourth grade, I was given a French horn at school to play in the band. I was very taken with the instrument. I loved the tone! The French horn is everything the piano isn’t, and vice versa. On the piano, there’s only so much you can do with tone. Some pianists create a much more beautiful sound than other pianists. There’s something to that. But on the French horn, you can hear just one note and identify the player! What you can do with just one note is extraordinarily limited on the piano. But on the French horn, there is so much you can do with each note. It’s unbelievable! Plus I loved playing in the orchestra and the band. I was very serious about French horn. I divided my time between French horn and piano all through school.

In junior high I had a great French horn teacher, Hugh Cowden.

He was such an inspiration to me. I learned so much from that man that it was unbelievable! He used to come over to my house for lessons. We would go downstairs in the playroom and he would spend all afternoon there with me. We would play duets together, we would play recordings, he would have me do excerpts as well as etudes and concertos and sonatas. I learned all the Mozart Horn Concertos, the Strauss Concertos, the Glière Concerto, the Hindemith Sonata, and more. I really learned a tremendous amount. I loved the French horn. I played in several very good orchestras in high school. I even had the opportunity to play lead French horn with Chuck Mangione, and had a bunch of solos! I also played principal 1st horn on Mahler’s 1st Symphony under Seiji Ozawa on ABC Television at Tanglewood, as well as at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. I was extremely serious about the horn.

In middle school I remember saying to my parents, “How am I going to decide between French horn and piano when it’s time for college?”

My parents told me, “Oh, you’ll know.” And I said, “No, I won’t.” And sure enough, I didn’t! I couldn’t make up my mind between French horn and piano. To some extent, there were many mitigating factors to this. One was, my father had so many brilliant students, many of whom were far more accomplished technically than I was. I have small hands. Growing up, I struggled to develop enough strength to be able to play the literature I wanted to play on the piano. It was really hard for me. I overcame it, but it took much more work. I realized as a teacher, years later, how much easier piano was for so many of my students than it was for me! I’ve had students who could just leap from one level to another because their hands could handle it once they could intellectualize the music. I didn’t have that luxury. I had to work and work to develop the muscles, and to figure out how to break chords I couldn’t reach in order to be able to play advanced piano literature.

I loved playing in orchestra. And furthermore, I enjoyed practicing the French horn more than I enjoyed practicing the piano!

Playing the French horn is a visceral experience. It was just fun going through all the musical excerpts of the famous horn solos, whereas piano was almost drudgery. It takes so much work to memorize music on the piano! I loved refining the music once I had it memorized. That was the part I’ve always loved. But that initial memorization is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if any of you memorize piano music, you understand. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Memorizing music is really hard! And it’s an essential part of piano practice (which I have come to enjoy!)

I decided that I would only audition at schools that offered double majors with horn and piano.

That’s why I didn’t apply to Juilliard, because they didn’t offer a double major. But the Manhattan School of Music and the Cleveland Institute of Music did. I applied at those schools and got into both schools on both instruments! I decided to go to the Manhattan School of Music to get to study with the principal horn of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The piano faculty was tremendous there as well.

When I went to my counselor to put my schedule together, it became obvious that doing a double major would never leave me enough time to practice.

It wasn’t just the private lessons. It was the entire course load that would be doubled up just about. Finding enough time to practice even with just a music performance degree on one instrument is a great challenge since you’re working towards a bachelor of music degree. It’s an academic degree. So you have a substantial course load. You have music theory, history, on and on as well. I decided to be a French horn major, because I could continue to study piano with my father. I wanted to be able to play in the ensembles. Playing with an orchestra is an integral part of playing the French horn. Piano, you can play all by yourself, or you can do collaborative work with four hand piano, accompanying, or chamber music. But you certainly have a lot to keep you busy just with solo repertoire. Whereas with the French horn, almost everything involves other instruments. Even solo music, you’re playing with a piano. But playing in an orchestra, that’s the end goal for a French hornist generally. There are very few people who only play solo French horn.

Well, I had an experience that I won’t go into and I won’t mention the name of the teacher. But it was a miserable experience that maybe I’ll write in a book someday. I’m not going to share it with you because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But a really horrific thing happened and I had to stop studying with the horn teacher who I had. At that point I figured I might as well study with a piano teacher. I was accepted by all the piano teachers at the Manhattan School of Music, which was very thrilling. I chose to study with Constance Keene. I decided to go back to my previous horn teacher, Hugh Cowden. He was such a great horn teacher, so it made sense. So I went and studied with Constance Keene on piano and continued doing horn outside of school.

When did I finally just go for piano?

I haven’t played the horn in quite a number of years. The last time I played the French horn, I played concerts in both New York and California with my father and my daughter! We did the Brahms Horn Trio, which is a magnificent work. You should listen to it if you’ve never heard it. I also performed the Benjamin Britten Serenade for Horn, Strings, and Tenor with an orchestra in Orange County. I was in top shape! This was in the early 2000s. But it was at the same time that I had just put together the concept of my Living Piano: Journey Through Time: Historic Concert Experience. I was really gung-ho about this. This ended up being something I performed dozens of times in universities, art centers, and convention halls all over California. I performed this show for the annual conventions of the Music Teachers’ Association, as well as the Piano Technicians Guild. I even did a Living Piano cruise!

I divided my time between French horn and piano up until the early 2000s.

I was in the formative stages of the Living Piano show. My mind was completely wrapped up in it! Yet I had these important performances on the horn. I was practicing the horn incessantly! I had almost no time for the piano. So once those performances were over, I just completely left the horn in the case ever since, which is kind of a shame. I do have some recordings. One of these days maybe I’ll post the Brahms horn trio performance. Naturally, I played the horn part of that. My father, Morton Estrin, played the piano. My daughter, Jenny Estrin, played the violin part. She is an incredibly accomplished violinist!

That’s my personal piano story! I bet many of you are surprised to hear this. Have any of you had experiences with multiple instruments? Have any of you taken as long as me to make up your mind about what instrument would be your primary instrument? I’d love to hear from you! Let me know in the comments here at and YouTube! Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin here at, Your Online Piano Resource.

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12 thoughts on “How I Became a Pianist: My Personal Piano Story”


  1. Maestro – My last Maestro’s father was a French Horn player and traveled all over the U. S. with different orchestras during his life. I did play the cello for 3 years in junior high and attempted the harp in my 20’s before Music performance at University. Thank you for sharing. Annette

  2. Funny you brought up the French horn. I was talking about it the otherr day with someone. When I taught band, I always handpicked my horn player from my interested students and gave them a private lesson during recess until they were caught up with the rest of the band. The Fr horn book was written to match the other beginning instruments and was too low for a beginning student. Memorization: yes. Thank goodness my Suzuki students don’t have that problem since everything is memorized…and when they have reached the advanced books where reading is a must, I just have to mention to them once that it’s time to let go of the paper. Wish that had been that easy for me, being traditionally trained to memorize a recital piece a couple of times a year.

    1. Since I started horn after I already had been studying the piano, I came into my second lesson at school the following week and was able to play the entire book! French horn music is so much simpler than piano music.

  3. Hi Robert — that really is very interesting, and surprising. You’re obviously both very talented and hard-workng to be able to have reached such a professional level on two distinctly different instruments. I didn’t grow up in anything like the degree of musical immersion you did. Percussion notwithstanding (I also play percussion), I started piano around 7th grade and by 9th -10th grade was playing some early Beethoven sonatas, Schubert impromptus, Debussey Arabesques, and Bach partitas. I was very much drawn to Bach – especially the Glenn Gould’s recording of the 6 partitas. Then in 10th grade I bought a record of E. Power Biggs Bach Organ Favorites and fell in love with the organ. I entered college (Greensboro, NC) as a Bachelor of Music degree candidate with an organ major with a piano minor. Due to several events my freshman year — the loss of my father, and the war in Vietnam — plus some hesitancy about earning a living as a musician, I decided to switch to a BA degree with a double major (music, and philosophy and religion) in my sophomore year. Thus I’ve had only three semesters of formal organ study. However I had excellent teachers in both piano and organ, and subsequently was an organist/choir director of several churches, was the interim organist for a college chapel, and have taught numerous piano (and percussion) students. I entered the IT field in my early twenties while simultaneously serving as church organist. Eventually family came along and more involved work in IT which gradually displaced my music career for the next 40 years or so. Now retired, I’m hoping to resuscitate/revive some degree of musical usefulness so as to be able to play at least occaisionally, and teach again..

    1. It is interesting how you have been able to successfully combine your love of music with other interests. Hopefully, now you will be able to devote more time to music once again!

      1. Apparently there’s a strong affinity between the logic and skills used for computer programming and musicians. In the 1970’s when computers were just beginning to emerge, there were almost no schools for computer programming, and very scarce precedents for knowing who to hire and train for programming. IBM did a huge study to answer that question, and at the top of the list were musicians. Apparently musicians ARE “computers” in a manner of speaking: they process a sequentially-coded language of lines with dots and other odd shapes all over them and render it as analog output on a tonal-producing output device. Compared to a Chopin etude, I found computer programming was a breeze (and it paid the bills too! 🙂

      2. Player pianos were the first punch-card computers! Expressive players, like Steinway Duo-Art, as well as Ampico systems had the dynamics and pedaling information encoded. This was early in the 20th century! Many of these player rolls have been converted to MIDI data and can play modern player pianos wirelessly with all the expression of the original performers.

  4. Well that’s awesome to know (re player pianos …) !!! I had heard that punch-card weaving looms had something to do with the development of computers, but I wasn’t aware that the player pianos did also! Thanks for sharing that! (I suppose that since punched cards are flat and also have sharp edges they can play in any key – 😉

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