Surely you’re familiar with Musicfest Northwest, Spokane’s annual music student competition, in which hundreds of rosy-cheeked children show off their Chopin chops.
Judges have pencils poised. Parents suffer anxiety attacks. Prizes are awarded.
This year, Ellamae Anderson was the typical Musicfest Northwest participant – rosy-cheeked, nervous, bursting with talent – with one difference: She’s 86 years old.
No big deal – she’s only 70 or 80 years older than most other piano students.
Anderson has been taking piano lessons from Greg Presley for about five years and has become my new role model, for reasons I’ll explain later. First, let’s follow her to her Musicfest Northwest performance on Friday and see how she did.
“I’m so nervous,” she said, fidgeting, waiting her turn, unable to sit down. She was worried about a tricky double octave and about whether her nose would start running in the middle of the performance (“allergies,” she explained).
When her turn came, Anderson announced the name of her piece – Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1 – sat poised over the Steinway, and let ’er rip.
Let me put it this way: Ellamae Anderson is no novelty act. This piece is seven minutes of arpeggios, crescendos and various keyboard fireworks. Presley called it an “advanced piece, a concert-level piece.” To my ears, Ellamae nailed it.
Afterward, Ellamae was happy and relieved, but she did confide with chagrin that she “missed her double octave.”
The adjudicator, a pro from Indianapolis, was quite complimentary and gave her and the other adults in her division certificates of merit.
Another adjudicator once told her, “Mrs. Anderson, I can’t tell you how much joy it has given me to hear you play.”
“I guess they’re not that used to seeing an 87-year-old play,” said Anderson.
By the way, she was rounding up – her 87th birthday isn’t until June 1. Apparently she’s not sensitive about her age.
She is not actually a piano beginner. She began playing as a child in Sandpoint, but her mother died just before she went into the third grade. She was taken in by family friends.
“They borrowed a piano for me to take lessons,” said Anderson. “But it was the Depression and music lessons were paid for with eggs and cream and butter.”
By the time she was in junior high, she quit taking lessons. For the next 70 years, she played only occasionally. Then, five years ago, she resolved to get serious.
“I considered myself a musical illiterate,” she said. “I really had no training and had never played any of the masters’ pieces.”
She was motivated not simply by the love of Chopin but also by a need for an artistic haven. Her husband, Eskil Anderson, 96, had developed senile dementia. He still lives at their home on the South Hill. She has been his caretaker for the past seven years, which she confided “seems like forever.”
As she sat at her piano, practicing, she said her music is what keeps her going.
“It’s wonderful therapy,” she said.
She can go on at length about her deficiencies as a pianist – her fingering is “horrid,” she has trouble reading the sheet music, she has trouble memorizing pieces. But Presley disagrees.
“For me, as a teacher, having a student like Ellamae is a validation of everything we believe in as musicians: that music is for your whole life,” Presley said.
Personally, I can only dream of playing piano that well. In fact, not long ago I had a dream in which I was an excellent pianist, banging out the boogie-woogie and barreling through Beethoven. It was the greatest feeling ever – and then I woke up. Imagine my disappointment when it dawned on me that I had no idea how to play the piano, and, at age 55, probably never would.
And then Ellamae showed me that it’s never too late to knock out a killer nocturne. If I start taking lessons now, maybe, in 30 years, I can be just like Ellamae Anderson.