“I came out of the womb raring to go,” says Margie Balter, in that over-the-top energetic persona she’s known to have. She studied dance and music from the time she was 3. She created a professional theater group before she left elementary school. And she has dedicated her life to teaching people how to navigate the black and white keys of a piano.
Margie Balter, the solo musician who has become known as pianist to the stars, is coming to Lodi for a one-time performance at Heritage Oak Winery on Sunday night.
Balter has thrived at teaching children for decades, but she also teaches Hollywood actors, helping them learn the piano out of their own interests or for film roles.
Also an actress, Balter became well known in the film circuit after she coached Holly Hunter in the film “The Piano,” a role that earned Hunter an Academy Award for Best Actress. She went on to coach Tom Cruise in his dramatic role in “Interview with a Vampire,” Scarlett Johansson for “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and Sandra Bullock in “The Net.”
Balter also has her own album, “Margie Balter: Music From My Heart,” which has won three Los Angeles Music Awards and includes “Bluesie,” a song that was featured in “Date Night” with Tina Fey and Steve Carell.
‘She gets something intangible out of her students’ success’
Balter’s Hollywood journey started when she taught Jane Fonda’s children to play the piano. Word spread, and soon, she began working with Michael Keaton and Jill Eikenberry, who introduced her to Holly Hunter.
“I didn’t intend to be a known piano teacher. I just 100 percent got pulled in this direction,” she says.
Balter works with most actors for several months at a time to prepare for roles in which their characters play the piano.
When working with Holly Hunter during the filming of “The Piano,” Hunter wanted to understand the mind of the musician so she could add those elements to her character. Their training not only involved sitting at the keys, but they also went to jazz clubs and watched symphonies together.
“Actors are great students because they really want to learn. They’re motivated to get it and understand it,” she said.
To prepare for “Interview with a Vampire,” Tom Cruise scheduled an hour and a half every single day for five weeks, including weekends, with Balter.
“Every lesson, he would say, ‘This is so much fun. I’m going to study with you for the rest of my life,’” she said, joking that she knew he wouldn’t realistically be able to follow that schedule.
Feature and commercial director Randall Rubin started piano lessons with Balter when he was a teenager. Now he is 42, and after a break for many years, he is coaching with her again. He says Balter has always had infectious enthusiasm for music and a passion for teaching.
“She gets something intangible out of her students’ success,” Rubin said. “She taught me everything, not just how to play notes, but chord theory and music history.”
When he started piano, he did so out of his own interest. But now, his skills help him in his career in film and TV. With music being an integral part of his work, he is able to have close relationships with composers because of his understanding of music, from minor chords to score theory.
With 19 film credits, Balter says she doesn’t necessarily have a favorite actor. However, she says she would put Sandra Bullock — a “darling” — at the top of her list.
And working with so many actors, she doesn’t get star struck, either.
“I think I’m a star. They feel like my peers,” she said. “I feel like they’re my peers and I’m with the people I should be with.”
Hollywood: It’s the world she has always dreamt of.
Balter: The natural
As a child growing up in Philadelphia, Balter — and everyone who encountered the outgoing little girl — knew what she wanted: To be an actress.
Balter’s mother, Alma Balter, who took her daughter to dance classes every day when she was a toddler, remembers Margie always stood out in a crowd.
“Wherever I went, everybody told me she had excellent musical ability,” Alma Balter said. “She was a natural-born actress as a little girl.”
Even then, Balter ran the show — literally.
In fourth grade, Balter created The Playwrights, a theater company with other young children interested in showbiz. She wrote the plays, starred in most of them, and did all of the booking as the group was hired to entertain at children’s birthday parties.
“Acting is my first love,” says Balter, who recently completed an acting role as the villain in an upcoming children’s movie.
Though she loves acting, it was hard work when she moved to Los Angeles after college. She didn’t like her career being left in other peoples’ hands, so she decided she would become a pianist, and be in control of her own career.
She earned her degree in music from University of Washington in Seattle (after transferring from Northwestern), and began teaching piano.
At Sunday’s concert at Heritage Oak Winery, Balter will share a piece of her life’s work that is close to her heart. She will play the songs from her solo piano album “Margie Balter: Music From My Heart.”
The album was released in 2007, and has been licensed in several films, yet Balter says many people are discovering her piano music. She describes her music as emotional and eclectic, and able to effect people in a way only music can.
“People listen to music to uplift their spirits, to soothe their spirits. There’s something about music, it’s a profound thing,” she said.
Contact Lodi Living Editor Lauren Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.