Printer-friendly version
elise stanley

My performance of a lifetime

May 29, 2010 at 10:39 AM


The following may read like a bad movie script but it is entirely true.

As mentioned elsewhere I am a returning violinist - took it up again 2.5 yrs ago after a 40 year hiatus (with a brief revisit trying to get my son to play ~20 year ago; story in my blog off-site).  About 8 months into this resurgence I made a trip to Europe (I live in Toronto, Canada now) both for business (a prestigious talk invite) and for personal reasons.  The latter was to visit my brother in Kempen Germany and see my mother who is in a nearby home. 
Mom was in her late 80s and aging peacefully, taking a gradual decent into senility.  She was born in Germany and grew up as a Jew during the Nazi regime, escaping as a teenager to England in 1938, a few months before war broke out.  As for many at that time, her career choices were yet another victim of the turmoil: indeed, by all accounts she had been a very talented pianist and might well have had a distinguished musical career.
I had not seen her in 4 years and, I must admit, was apprehensive of meeting her, fearing that I would not know her or she me.  She sat by herself at a table in the dining area near a window. I sat down opposite while she slowly ate a spoonful at a time of yogurt.  I said hello but she did not notice me – she said nothing to me and made no acknowledgement of my existence for over an hour. Later my brother arrived and we sat in company chatting about life in general and my mother’s well being. She sat with us, content it seems, but oblivious, lost in some distant world. My heart sank as I realized that I had lost my mother.
I had brought my violin. My mother had been the driving force when I learned the first time – she would play the piano to my squeaks and she religiously attended my recitals and orchestra events. She relished in her musical offspring hoping, no doubt, that I might choose the path that was denied to her. But that was not to be – other more academic interests grasped my mind and eventually the violin became little more than a memento. But I was anxious to play for her – perhaps somewhere within her mind it would register.  I saw it as my gift for the visit. What to play? No problem – Brahms had always been her favorite, so his lullaby was first. And that’s when the magic happened. Mom opened her eyes with joy, she came alive that moment – she started to tap her hand to the music and then she started talking – she told me how she loved that song and commented on my playing.  Most important she talked, not at me, but to me. For a few precious – truly beyond words – minutes, while the music played she was back. I played everything I could from memory and everything I had with me. Gradually she tired of course and we had to leave, mom back in her quiet place – a place that was no longer distant from me and not scary at all – just one where she lives.
Not surprisingly, the above event has affected me in many ways. Beyond the personal ones – complexities of love, grief and also guilt that I am left to ponder on, there is the pure amazement of the power of music and its implications for the working of the mind. When other connections to ‘reality’ were lost (or ignored) music, specifically of course one’s own child’s playing, could yet gain access and create the need or will to emerge. I am left with an immense feeling of gratitude, a blessing if you will, for the gift of connection through the medium that she and I shared so long ago.

From Bart Meijer
Posted on May 29, 2010 at 7:32 PM

Your story moved me to tears. Thank you for sharing it.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 29, 2010 at 9:19 PM

What a beautiful story. Musical memories are so deeply embedded. I'm so glad you were able to reach your mother in this way.

From Wiebke Nazareth
Posted on May 29, 2010 at 9:43 PM

 Thanks so much for sharing this with us! There is nothing more powerful than music!

From David Rowland
Posted on May 29, 2010 at 10:43 PM

Magic, pure magic.

From Rick Savadow
Posted on May 29, 2010 at 10:39 PM

I was moved by your story also -- from 2 different perspectives.

First I was reminded of the work of the neurologist Dr Oliver Sacks. I remember seeing a TV show where a man in his upper 80s was brought to the front of a room in a home for the elderly. He could hardly walk and mentally, was barely present. Jazz music from his youth  was put on & he started to dance in a way that I envy. When it ended, he immediately retreated back into that world you referred to with your mother.

The other perspective is more personal. I quit playing violin when I was 18. My orchestra teacher in high school said I needed to either work harder or quit -- so I quit. Quit in favor of playing folk music on guitar (I was never very good) & being a performing Balkan folk dancer (I was good). Music has continued to occupy a big place in my life. I am a huge opera fan. But about 14 years ago my son began to take violin lessons. At the time, I was also quite take by the melodies & rhythms of regional Scandinavian folk dance music that I had become fond of. The combination led be back to playing, after about 35 years. I found that the old classical repertoire was still in my fingers. The new tunes were just waiting at skin level, already deep in my soul.

I have not become a great fiddler, but I play well for dancers, since I am a dancer.  More importantly, it has brought joy & breadth to my love of music.

For my own reasons I relate to your story. I am very happy for you.


From Yixi Zhang
Posted on May 29, 2010 at 10:46 PM

You were very lucky to have brought your mother back with music, even for a short moment. I too live in Canada and three years ago I did something similar to my dying father who lived in Shanghai. I didn't bring the violin but went to Shanghai and purchased oneat a local luthier so that I could play for him one more time. I would have traded anything just to be able to bring him some joy with my violin playing.  Unfortunately he didn't seem to enjoy it. He was extremely lucid, but quite depressed, being a long-term stroke victim. This is one of those things I've noticed with some depressed people, that they lose interest in things they used to love, such as food, music, what have you. Music is especially helpful for patients with dementia, which may or may not be your mother's case. There are a lot of amazing stories about how some quite advanced stage dementia patients are able to return to their healthy and lucid state when music is performed or even be able to perform beautifully even when they were not able to talk.  This video explains some of this.

I know what you mean by guilt all that. He passed away a few months after my last visit. And you know, some part of me still feel that had I been a better violinist then, or had I chosen some better sets of pieces to play for him, he might have enjoyed it. I know it's unproductive to think like this but it's part of the grieving I guess.

From Dion Ackermann
Posted on May 30, 2010 at 12:47 AM

 It is real life stories like this that makes this website so wonderful and unique.

We now know where Elise got the word "geliebte" (loved one) from. She must have heard it a lot.  

From Kerry Dexter
Posted on May 30, 2010 at 9:54 PM


I wonder if you know the work of singer and songwriter Cathie Ryan? She had a similar experience when visiting her grandmother (who, by the way, played the fiddle). Seeing that Cathie was saddened that her grandmother no longer knew her, her aunt suggested that she sing to her, and as she did -- she was sitting on the floor at her grandmother's feet -- she saw her foot begin to tap, and then, as with you, there her grandmother  was, for the space of the song, present  and aware and happy.

I am so glad for your connection and your good memory also.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 31, 2010 at 12:17 PM

 What a touching story - thanks so much for sharing it with us!

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 1, 2010 at 7:01 PM

Elise, that was a very touching story.  I'm glad that you were able to reconnect with your mother, if only briefly, through music.

Other people have had similar experiences.  I know one couple who cared for the husband's mother at home for years when she had Alzheimer's and could not communicate verbally.  The whole family is musical, and the old woman had played violin in the past.  Sometimes the couple  would give the old woman her violin to play.  Sometimes she would start to hold it upside down, but when they corrected her mistake, she would play her violin.  The effect on her mind was even more impressive.  For several days after playing her violin, she would be more alert and more interested in things around her.  Music is indeed a very powerful force.


This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker

Miroirs CA Classical Music Journal
Miroirs CA Classical Music Journal

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Classic Violin Olympus

Coltman Chamber Music Competition

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Jargar Strings


Violin Lab



Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine