• Karla Wilson

Catarina and the Blue Danube

The first time I arrived at Catarina’s studio apartment in an assisted living facility, it was her caregiver, Anna, who greeted me at the door. She glanced down at the bag carrying my portable keyboard, and her face exploded into a bright smile of recognition. “You’re the music therapist,” she said excitedly, “we’re so happy you’re here!” Anna knew that 87-year-old Catarina had a fierce love of music. She explained that Catarina’s primary language was German, but that she knew some English from having spent the latter part of her life in the United States. Anna went on, “she really does love all music, classical, German, even popular songs from America.” She cautioned, as if I might be unaware, “she has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t speak much at all anymore. Every now and then she will say a few words. I hope that she’ll respond to the music.”

Anna helped transfer Catarina from her bed to her wheelchair, positioning her directly in front of my keyboard. Choosing to forego music with lyrics at the outset, instead I began with the "classical" genre. When I commenced with playing “The Blue Danube,” Strauss’ iconic waltz, Catarina nodded her head affirmatively and grinned. As the piece progressed, Catarina turned her eyes to Anna and with joy in her voice said, “yes, yes, yes!” Anna, standing next to her, agreed and gave Catarina’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. However, it was when the piece concluded that Catarina’s response took Anna by complete surprise.

Catarina reached out to touch the top of my keyboard closest to her. She stretched further, as if seeking to explore the keys with her fingers. I asked if she would like to play, and Catarina nodded fervently. I simply flipped my keyboard around on its stand, so that the keys were now facing Catarina. She slowly lifted both hands up to rest upon the keys. One could almost see the neurons firing, lighting the pathways in her brain, allowing Catarina to begin processing what she now felt under her fingers. I first noticed her hand position; the curved fingers of one who was no stranger to the piano. A few moments went by before her fingers depressed the keys, one by one, beginning with the thumb then giving each subsequent finger an opportunity to make contact with the keys. With each touch, the recognition seemed to grow; awareness reflected in her eyes as she concentrated on what she was doing.

With encouragement from Anna, Catarina explored a bit further, this time playing random intervals of sound with her right hand. Her focus was upon the keys in the center of the instrument, those directly in front of her. With each musical interaction, Catarina seemed intent upon creating another, then another; until she stopped, nodded and softly spoke, “yes,” once again. At that time, her hands returned to her lap, Catarina's face aglow with contentment.

Anna expressed having no idea that Catarina had played the piano during her life. She knew some about Catarina’s life in Germany and her family, but playing piano had never come up. The immortal words of my father suddenly flashed to mind, “you learn something new every day!”


(Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals)

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