Playing For Doris

by Joyce Morton

Keynotes, March 2002

I am writing this for myself as well as for you. I related this story to Anne Williams, and she encouraged me to write about it in an article for Keynotes. I said, yes, it could possibly encourage someone else, but then I started thinking about it and realized I needed to write it for me, as well. I need to remember this. I need to think about it when I am asked to play.

I am inhibited by self-doubt, especially when it comes to playing the piano. I am never adequately prepared. I'm not technically proficient. I am uncomfortable before an audience. I fear forgetting when I try to play for others a piece that I can play easily for myself from memory, and the fear itself often ends up producing the result that confirms its validity.

Seldom have I felt less prepared to play upon request than recently when my husband and I, on the spur of the moment, decided to fly to Florida to see elderly friends-sort of extended family members-now living in an assisted living facility and coping with rapidly failing health. Doris asked me to bring music to play for her.

Doris hungers for music; it satisfies a craving deep within her. She had piano lessons as a child, riding a pony to her lessons. When she married and had children, she tried in vain to interest her sons in music. Finally, her efforts bore fruit with her fourth child, a daughter, who ended up majoring in music. However, Jane long ago abandoned any musical pursuits in favor of other directions. When I was a young woman of 20 with no access to a piano, Doris offered the use of her piano to satisfy my own craving that she understood.

I am never very attentive to maintaining repertoire. I pursue music not to play for others but because I so love the process of learning, the feel of playing, the emotional satisfaction it provides. However, lately I have been even less diligent than usual about maintaining repertoire. I have thrown everything to the wind as I have finally, finally been able to work on THE piece I have wanted to play for years-Chopin Ballade No. 1 in g minor, a piece I will always associate with Rochelle Scissors after hearing her play it at a master class with Charles Timbrell.

So the request that I play seemed to come at a bad time. All I felt capable of playing was a very shaky, premature performance of a magnificent piece that did not seem appropriate for an assisted-living facility nor for a woman in fragile health. But I knew I would not refuse the request. I would do my best. Perhaps I could scrape together enough less demanding pieces that I could get through; and perhaps Doris would like to hear some popular selections that I had played in years past that always seemed to appeal to people.

Doris and George live in an multi-story assisted-living facility. Until this past year, they had a suite on the top floor, but they have recently moved to a floor where they have separate rooms and access to round-the-clock nursing care. Doris suffered a mild stroke and then had emergency surgery the first of November and, once released from the hospital, had been confined to her room. However, when she learned we were coming and that I would play for her, she arranged for the piano to be reserved for a 4 p.m. "concert" on January 12, the day of our arrival. We visited with both Doris and George during the day. Doris periodically checked the time as we visited. She was concerned about being ready on time. She wanted to wear a dress and to make sure her hair looked good. She asked if it was O.K. to invite friends. Yes, of course.

Mid afternoon, I decided I better check out the piano and get in a bit of practice. I found that it sat on the floor of a large five- or six-story atrium that was topped by sky lights and ringed by balconies onto which the upper floor suites opened. Residents could lean over the balconies and see and hear performances below, or they could sit outside of their rooms or in one of the seating areas on the level of the piano. The piano was out of tune, but, otherwise, was better than I had expected.

I had a chance to run through all the pieces I intended to play before Doris arrived-Bach and Scarlatti preludes, Debussy's La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin, Ravel's Oiseaux tristes, first movement of a new Beethoven Sonata I had been working on (Op 10, No 1.), the Chopin Ballade, and the popular pieces I had brought. Don't be impressed. I was hanging on for dear life, just hoping the mistakes weren't too glaring and that I could communicate something of meaning.

At about 4 p.m., Doris was wheeled to the piano and sat up close, right behind and to my left. Other people had congregated as well, or were leaning on the balconies or sitting outside their rooms listening. The music was beautiful at times, flawed at other times. I wished I had been better prepared, but I have never had a more appreciative audience. Doris was alert and alive, and the music touched her at a time when she needed it. I mentioned to her that I had brought some popular pieces, but it was the classical ones she wanted to hear: "I would rather hear your music." She loved the Ravel, the Debussy, the Beethoven. No longer did the Ballade seem inappropriate. The recital ended with the bird calls of Oiseaux tristes floating up through the atrium.

When the playing ended, Doris grasped my hands, looked into my eyes, and said "That meant so much to me," and I knew it had. It meant much to me as well. No one there that day was expecting a perfect performance, nor were they critical of shortcomings. They were just grateful for anything I had to offer, and any offering was better than none. I came away with a renewed appreciation of Chris Herman's statement about performing at the Washington Home and Hospice: "It is satisfying to think that the residents enjoy the modest entertainment we provide. It's a small thank you for contributions made during their active lives and a small gesture that yet others might reciprocate some day."

Copyright 2002 Joyce Morton

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