A piano saved Phyllis Giberson’s life.
Not really, but that’s the impression you might get from reading this story at the Lexington Herald-Leader. Aged 62 and suffering from stage 4 ovarian cancer, Giberson was making preparations for her last days.
Her partner, however, had other ideas. He signed her up for piano lessons.
They weren’t just any piano lessons though. They were group piano lessons sponsored by a grant from the AARP.
Each week Giberson would spend an hour with other “like-minded women of a certain age.” Initially, she came more out of a sense of obligation than a desire to play, but soon she found that that playing helped to cheer her up. Now, the newspaper says, whenever she begins to feel self-pity, she sits at the piano, plays some music, and immediately she starts to feel better.
“Even if it is just my chords over and over and over again,” she says. “It has made a vast difference in my energy level and in my life.”
The course at mUsiKcare isn’t long. It lasts ten weeks, costs $225 and the group is limited to just six people.
It’s clear that in ten hours, students aren’t going to come away ready to race through Liszt at the Philharmonic. According to the teacher Vicki McVay, older students don’t have the patience to practice the finger exercises necessary to make music-playing instinctive. Instead, they know what they want to hear themselves play and the aim is to use that playing to promote relaxation and reduce stress.
That seems to work and as well as turning a piano into a relaxation device, the group lessons also help to bring people together and form a community. The lessons are as much a social club as a music course.
So Why Do You Play?
When we first learn to play an instrument, we tend to see the lessons as a means to an end.
If we keep learning, keep practicing, keep playing, eventually we’ll do more than conquer the instrument. We’ll be able to pick up a sheet of music and use those hard-won skills to produce beautiful music.
We aren’t paying and practicing to learn to play an instrument; we’re paying and practicing to learn to make music.
But there is more to it than that. Whenever we sit at the piano or lift the violin or place the cello between our knees, we know we’re about to get two kinds of pleasure.
We’re going to hear music that moves us and makes us happy. And we’re going to know that we made that music ourselves.
For as long as we’re playing, everything else vanishes. For those moments that our fingers are pushing the keys or pulling the bow, we’re nowhere but in the middle of the notes and in the sound that the composer imagined.
Playing an instrument — whether it produces beautiful music or not — helps us to forget and immerses us in something entirely different in a way that no other activity can do. It can even make us forget cancer.