Striking all the right musical notes

Striking all the right musical notes

From piano bars to CDs, Robin Spielberg lets resilience color her compositions

Robin Spielberg released her new CD this month.
Robin Spielberg released her new CD this month.

Pianist Robin Spielberg has a new CD  out.

There’s nothing particularly newsworthy about that. The Essex County native — and for the record, no relation to that other Spielberg — has recorded more than 20 CDs of her contemporary instrumental compositions and sold more than one million physical copies of them.

She is in the top 1% of artists played on Pandora Radio, where there have been almost 200 million streams of her songs, and she also has 160,000 monthly listeners on Spotify.

So what makes her latest recording, “By Way of the Wind,” special? For one thing, it is her first using a symphony orchestra. But on a larger canvas, there is the theme of resilience that runs through it. And none of its songs is more inspirational and central to that theme than the third track, “A Song for Jennie.”

Ms. Spielberg says it is dedicated to her paternal grandmother. It’s a story that likely has a familiar ring to generations of Jews.

Jennie Spielberg, pregnant at the time, and her husband, Rubin, recognized that 1920s-era Russia was no place to raise a family. So Rubin, a talented flutist, left for the United States, where he joined his brother Herman, a violinist. The plan was that he’d get a job and send for Jennie as soon as he was settled.

Unfortunately, by the time Rubin was able to send for his wife, the United States had tightened immigration rules, and Jennie couldn’t get in.

“So my grandmother had the baby on her own,” Robin Spielberg told me. “She had a little boy, and raised him by herself in Russia. You can probably imagine how that went over. People didn’t believe she had a husband in America. They called her names. They thought she was a single mother.

“Without a husband, it was incredibly difficult. But eventually she gained entrance to America for her and her little boy, Martin, and rejoined her husband.”

But tragedy struck again. Martin was killed in an automobile accident. Jennie soldiered on. “Her story is somewhat tragic, but it is also triumphant, because she gave birth to and raised my father, a first-generation American, the first to own a home and go to college.

“And because of my grandmother, I’m here, as an American Jewish woman, writing music for a symphony orchestra. I was able to play this piece for my grandmother at Carnegie Hall with her in the first row.”

Ms. Spielberg, 60, grew up in a secular household, first in Irvington and then in Maplewood. In fact, the choice between piano lessons or Hebrew school was a no-brainer. She took lessons from the time she was 7 and immediately showed immature skills as a composer, writing ditties about “Skylab was gonna fall on our heads,” she said. “Silly songs, but they would crack my parents up.”

Eventually, though, music took a back seat — albeit temporarily — to acting. She graduated from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in acting (after trying for two years to act like she loved attending a pre-law program at Michigan State). She was a  cofounder of the prestigious off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company, which ironically brought her back to the piano. She landed roles, wrote plays, and contributed music to others.

To help support herself, she landed a special job. “For 12 years, I played in Manhattan’s finest piano rooms and hotel lobbies. It was a highly coveted job among pianists in New York, because it was a union position with pension contributions, health care, and days off.”

Her longest gig was playing the lunch shift — 11:30 to 2:30 — in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt above Grand Central Station. “You couldn’t have any music with you,” she said. “You had to play everything from memory. So most of the people who were able to do these things were older men in tuxedos. There really weren’t many 20-year-olds, never mind women, doing this work. It was great, because it meant I still had time to audition for things. If I was cast in a play, I could still do it.”

While she had a large repertoire of the show tunes and pop music that are staples of piano bars, she eventually began to introduce her own compositions. “I was running out of things to play and getting tired of playing ‘Memories’’ from  ‘Cats,’” she said.

“What happened was that people stopped me. They didn’t stop me when I played ‘Moon River.’ They stopped me when I played an original piece and asked me,  ‘What was that? Is that from a movie? It’s beautiful.’ And they’d say, ‘Wow. If you ever have an album let us know.’

“They’d give me their business cards. I would take it as a compliment, but I wouldn’t think much of it. But over the years I collected 800 cards, and at one point I said,  ‘Wow. Eight hundred people who would buy my music.’”

So she self-financed a CD. They wouldn’t let her sell it at the piano bar, but she managed to convince the bookstore in Grand Central Station and nearby Sam Goody and Tower Record stores to carry the CD.

“That way, if someone told me, ‘I love your music. Where can I find it?,’ I could tell them.”

She also sent the CD out to several labels and signed a six-record deal with an independent label out of Rhode Island that sold more than 300,000 copies. “That’s a tremendous amount for an unknown artist,” she says. “Even my parents were skeptical.”

Over the years, her popularity grew. She performed all around the country and Asia, as well. She married her manager, Larry Kosson, and settled in Montclair, where locals may recall she was a regular at First Night Montclair festivities.

But her daughter, Valerie Kosson, now 25, was born “very prematurely, and as a result was quite sick and had a lot of medical needs. She had a lot of struggles. She had to have heart surgery. She had some physical and mental delays. But she is fine now.”

Like her mom, Valerie’s a musician. She went to college and majored in marimba. (Don’t feel bad. I didn’t know that was a major either.)

But early on, Valerie’s treatment at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore required the family to move. They settled in New Freedom, Pa., roughly halfway between the medical facility and family in New Jersey. (Larry comes from a more observant family in Clifton, with relatives in Israel.)

“When we were raising our daughter, I was anxious for her to know those traditions because I didn’t,” Ms. Spielberg said. The family joined a synagogue 16 miles from where they live. Valerie was confirmed and had a bat mitzvah on Masada.

“But here’s the thing that I think interesting,” Ms. Spielberg said. “I grew up in an area — Maplewood, South Orange, Montclair — where you could find a Jewish community. So it was easy for me to take my Judaism for granted. It was just something that was always there and available to me. But now I live in a more rural area of Pennsylvania. And when I moved here, you really had to work to find the community. It’s smaller. More tight-knit. And it became more valuable for me to seek it out. So now it’s something I treasure and don’t take for granted.”

Robin Spielberg debuted “By Way of the Wind” in Texas earlier this month. It already is available at She also livestreams music every Friday at 9 p.m. on her YouTube channel:

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