Many of my listeners say that they wish they’d kept at their childhood piano lessons. They lament ignoring their mothers’ advice to practice. I also meet people who became competent pianists, but now age has taken a toll: their hands hurt, they can’t see the sheet music, they can’t hear very well.
For Joan, whose progressive memory loss has not suppressed her outgoing nature, the challenge is remembering how the songs go. Each time I see her, Joan meets me anew. She tells me that she sometimes plays the same piano that I do, the one in the lobby of her retirement center. Sharing a musical instrument with me clearly pleases her very much. “But you’re a lot better than I am,” she always adds graciously.
I’ve been surprised how often people bring their pianos along when they move to a senior facility, mostly small models that easily fit into an apartment. In Renata’s case, a separate room was found to accommodate her massive mahogany Bösendorfer grand, an Austrian-made piano with thick, round legs and ornate styling.
Renata was a formidable professor of piano until Alzheimer’s disease interfered. For a time, her students came from the university to the dementia unit to continue their lessons. But as Renata’s condition worsened, her teaching duties trailed off. She retained her critical, demanding manner, however. In her heavy German accent, she berated anyone who failed to live up to her expectations.
Renata intimidated the volunteer musicians until few were willing to perform when she was in the audience. I remember once playing an obvious wrong note (not on the Bösendorfer—I was never allowed to touch that—but on a horrid old upright piano located elsewhere in the building) and hearing her cry out, her pain as real as if I had landed a blow. I guess I got off easy. Another volunteer told me about presenting an informal concert on the harp, an instrument she was just learning to play. Renata was so vicious in her unsolicited “feedback” that the volunteer left in tears.
At a couple of the places I play there are women who accompany me on air piano. Myrna takes this job very seriously. Her fingers dance over imaginary keys on her lap, her hands rise dramatically at the ends of musical phrases. She clearly knows her way around a piano.
I came across another memorable pianist when I volunteered in a nursing home in Madison, Wisconsin, before returning to East Lansing. Bessie was a year or two shy of her 100th birthday, blind and nearly deaf. Her sister Fran still lived independently, but joined the residents each Saturday for their sing-along.
While waiting for everyone to gather, Bessie usually entertained us. Fran pushed Bessie’s wheelchair up to the piano, placed her hands on the keys, and shouted the name of a tune in her ear (often “On, Wisconsin!”, the fight song of the Badgers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and, with modified lyrics, the state song). Bessie’s muscle memory kicked in and she pounded out a spirited rendition. If it didn’t sound right, Fran simply lifted Bessie’s hands and moved them to another part of the keyboard and she started again.
Bessie was a hard act to follow.
Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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