Andrea Avery: Composing My Life
Composing My Life
Andrea Avery’s talent as a pianist appeared when she was a child. So did her arthritis. Her inspiring new memoir tells her story.
By Andrea Avery
The first twelve years of my life, I lived in another body. In this “before” I was going to be a pianist. I was not crazy to think so. By some magic of genetics and environment, the keys rose to meet my fingers and music came. And then, too soon, by some inverted miracle of genetics and environment, rheumatoid arthritis appeared.
Starting piano at seven gave me a five-year head start on my arthritis. And even after the arthritis showed up at twelve, I had a few years’ grace. Two years into arthritis, in eighth grade, I performed the marche funebre movement from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor. One judge gave me a perfect score of ten. The other wrote that I had no business playing that funeral march until I was older.
By the time the pain made unrelenting daily appearances, by the time the disease had written its changes into the very shape of my fingers, around the time I was fifteen or sixteen, I knew nothing better than the piano. I loved nothing – no one – more. For years, I could override pain or awkwardness with dexterity and coordination. My fingers were extraordinarily good fingers before they were extraordinarily bad fingers.
In 1991, during an art therapy session at the Arthritis Foundation Juvenile Arthritis Conference, a boom box in the corner was set to a classical music station and a piano piece caught my attention. I’d never heard it before, but I loved it immediately. At the end of the piece the announcer said it was Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat, D. 960. I bought the sheet music for the sonata as soon as I got back. Over the next several years, my pursuit of the B-flat sonata became an obsession.
More than twenty years later, I have become the adult I could never quite imagine being. I live in a little stucco house in the desert, thousands of miles away from my hometown of Maryland. My body is crisscrossed with scars from the joint replacements I was told were inevitable. But I am doing OK.
And I have my piano. After several years of renting a little upright, I hired a piano mover to bring me the piano my grandmother and parents bought for me when I was sixteen, the Kawai. My mom took pictures of it on her end in Maryland as they unscrewed its legs and turned it on its side and swaddled it in blankets and belts. She put boxes of my piano music in the mail and the music showed up before the piano did. I dug through the boxes looking for a particular, beat-up red book. I knew what I would play first.
For two long weeks the piano was nowhere, on a truck in the middle of the country, and then it appeared. After the movers left, I lifted the lid and turned to Chopin, to the funeral march that, as a promising teenaged pianist all those years ago, I hadn’t known enough sadness to play.
I picked it out, reading slowly at first and then realizing that my hands, my hands that had been through so much, still knew this. My fingers knew where to look for the notes, even if they could no longer reach them. My tendons, which had been severed and sewn almost ten years before, did their job.
As soon as my fingers reacquaint themselves with my piano, they clamor for Schubert. The Sonata, the piece of music I love more than any other. There may be a reason this sonata spoke to me when I first heard it at that conference more than twenty years ago, still dreaming of becoming a classical pianist.
If I was going to have a life with arthritis in it, I am so glad I have had the piano as my companion. The concert pianist Byron Janis was, I think, referring to muscles and tendons when he was quoted in Arthritis Today in 2010, saying the “piano is good for arthritis.” Piano has probably been very hard on my arthritis. Excessive practice, four hours a day, probably caused my tendons to rupture sooner than later, but I believe that those tendons, made fragile by inflammation, would have ruptured eventually. I believe that piano has kept my arthritic hands stronger and more mobile than they would otherwise have been. And piano has been good for arthritis in a more meaningful way: Piano has given me something to reach for with my arthritic hands, some reason not to give up on my fingers. Without my five-year head start, without my muscle memory of playing piano, I probably would have capitulated to the physical therapist’s only expectations of diseased hands like mine: hold a pen, button a shirt.
Music has made my arthritic life better. And perhaps I am a better musician than I was or would have been – not despite my arthritis, but because of it. Maybe it takes scars to play Schubert and Chopin correctly. Maybe that judge so long ago, the one who said I wasn’t old enough to play the funeral march, was right.
My first semester at college, my teacher, a poet named Catherine Hammond, wrote at the bottom of my first essay, which recounted my failed piano exam, “If you have this kind of music in you, your task will be to find the form. It may be writing.”
I have not left music behind, but I acknowledge that there will be periods in my life when I cannot play the piano. It is the periods of silence – their duration, their frequency, their weight – that give meaning to sounds.
I may not be the pianist I wanted to be, but I have found my voice. I suppose I am a composer after all.
Excerpted from Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano by Andrea Avery. Published by Pegasus Books, ©Andrea Avery. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All other rights reserved.