Remembering Goodwin Sammel: distinguished pianist, teacher, polymath

Goodwin Sammel, distinguished pianist and beloved piano teacher in the East Bay for more than 50 years, passed away on Jan. 16, 2020, at the age of 94, in Berkeley, California.

Goodwin was born on Aug. 10, 1925, in St Joseph, Missouri, to Bess and Nicholas Sammel. He was the third of four children — two older sisters, Sonya Saper and Elaine Palevsky, now deceased, and his surviving younger sister, Joan Weston.

Goodwin began playing piano at age four, imitating his mother, who was an accomplished pianist. His first lessons were in Omaha, to where the family moved in 1929. He continued his instruction when the family moved to Creston, Iowa, and, in 1934, to Chicago. There he was first taught by his mother’s teacher, Isaac Levine. In 1937, he began studying with Isadore Buchhalter. Buchhalter arranged for the 12-year-old Goodwin to play Mazeppa, Liszt’s virtuoso symphonic poem, in a recital that was to have featured an Italian tenor. The last-minute change was due to management thinking that wartime antagonism toward the Italian government would make it better to have a young American on the program. 

Goodwin attended the University of Chicago on an academic scholarship. During World War II, he worked in a defense freight yard. When the war ended, he went to New York because he had promised himself he would someday study with a great pianist. Fulfilling that promise, from 1945 to 1950, Goodwin was a student of Claudio Arrau. Arrau would later say Goodwin possessed exceptional natural ability to grasp and project the emotional content of works of the most various styles, along with an excellent analytic ability [as well as] sincerity and seriousness of purpose in music, by the diversity of his intellectual pursuits, and by his excellent intelligence and character.

In 1951, Goodwin returned to Chicago and worked part time at the University of Chicago as an analyst of aerial photographs of fighter planes during the Korean War. He went back to New York in 1955 to teach at the Turtle Bay Music School in Manhattan. From 1959 to 1961, he worked as a computer programmer, first at IBM and then at Sperry-Rand. 

In1962, Goodwin moved to Berkeley, where he remained for the rest of his life. He began teaching piano privately and later at Mills College, where he also led seminars and lecture demonstrations. He was a frequent lecturer at other local venues, including the Music Teachers Association of California, the Berkeley Piano Club and the Music Library Association. In 2003, Goodwin was invited to give a lecture at Carnegie Hall in honor of the 100th birthday of his teacher, Claudio Arrau.

Sammel Goodwin playing the piano
Goodwin Sammel. Photo: Courtesy family

Goodwin Sammel taught hundreds of students who went on to musical and non-musical careers. One of his pupils, conductor Kent Nagano, valued his musicianship so much that he maintained a lifelong friendship with Goodwin and visited him at his home shortly before Goodwin’s passing. Local pianists often came to Goodwin’s house to play for him and to solicit his advice on interpretations of musical scores. Goodwin was still teaching students well into his 90s. 

Goodwin was a well-known personality in his North Berkeley neighborhood, and was recognized by nearly every shopkeeper, restaurant owner and street person on Shattuck Avenue because he would take the time to talk with and get to know each of them. Goodwin would sometimes play for Alice Waters and her staff at Chez Panisse in exchange for a simple meal. More recently, an EMT team, having responded to a 911 call, checked Goodwin out, gave him an “all clear,” and then, seeing the numerous pianos in his house, asked Goodwin to play the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata — which he did.

Goodwin was a prodigious polymath, whose knowledge spanned architecture, literature and astronomy, in addition to the languages he taught himself so he could study original source material of composers, from Alkan to Zemlinsky.

Goodwin Sammel is survived by ten nieces and nephews, two grandnieces, and five grandnephews, who will miss him dearly, in addition to his younger sister Joan, for whom he has always been the world’s greatest brother.    

A memorial service will be held Sunday, Feb. 23, at 10:30 a.m., at the Crowden Music Center 1475 Rose St., in Berkeley. In lieu of flowers, Goodwin’s family requests donations be made to the Crowden Music Center.