The Artist Within: Piano-Keys to Life

This week I went to visit my mom at Goodwin House, Bailey’s Crossroads. My mother is 91 years old and very functional, both somatically and socially,  but she has no short term memory. She has lived on the 3rd floor Assisted Living unit for the past five years. 

My mom has experienced decline, certainly, as she has aged. She has, however, 80 years of piano expertise that has served her in a variety of ways: finger flexibility that staves off arthritis, singing and playing that preserves social connection, sight reading music to juice cognitive ability, and the joy of artistic self expression. Her family’s investment in piano lessons during the Depression and World War II has paid off handsomely.

She has, recently, however had to deal with the artistic conflicts this piano skill will bring alongside memory loss.

I visited my mom just as she was getting ready to play her weekly afternoon piano concert for the other third floor residents.  There were nine people in the audience. She started playing and a few of the ladies started grumbling: “Can you please tell your mother to not play the same songs over and over?”

I said “You can ask her to play different songs. She can play anything you like.” And one woman said, “No she won’t! She’s stubborn!” I said, “She’s not stubborn. She has dementia”. She said, “That’s no excuse! Everybody here has dementia!”

Then an old man, who was trying to say something but he was shaking so hard with Parkinson’s that he couldn’t get the words out, sputtered words in my mom’s defense. I went over and asked him if he wanted to say something. He said, “I have as much power here as that old squirrel and she can shove it up her a**! I WANT to hear your mother play piano and she can play anything she wants, even if it’s the same song over and over.” I thanked him for being so nice about mom repeating the songs. 

I told everyone that I would get her songbooks so she would not play the same songs over and over. I kept giving my mom new sheet music and she played for more than an hour, sight reading like a champ, while the third floor residents sang, clapped, and danced along with patriotic songs and show tunes. She was still playing when I left.

I was so happy seeing my mom being so happy at the piano, using her technical skills as a pianist, but also connecting with the music, singing and playing and swaying, as the other third floor residents also were filled with the music. 

Possibly you might exhaust your audience with the repetition that short term memory loss can bring — but art is a lifelong commitment that brings joy to, not just the artist, but everyone who participates in the creative moment. The point of practicing your art is that you can still do it, when only muscle memory is left, and reap the fun of self expression — and of being alive! 

— Margaret Wohler

NOTE: This fall’s Emmanuel Voices blog series, The Artist Within, explores the intersections between creativity & art, and our personal & public lives.

Mental Health Spirituality The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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