Impromptu Performance: Piano Gave Me More than Music, It Gave Me My Grandfather

I sat down at the piano for my daily hour of practice, which over ten years had increasingly become more of a chore than a source of enjoyment. I had a competition coming up and just wanted to learn the piece as fast as possible and move on to the next one, almost like checking songs off of a to-do list.

"Is it okay if Grandpa listens to you play?" my mother asked me as she shepherded my grandfather from the kitchen chair to a purple faux leather couch by the piano.

"Sure," I responded tersely, knowing fully well that my mother was just trying to find my grandfather a distraction so that he would stop motioning for more food every few minutes, having forgotten that he already ate.

My grandfather had severe dementia at the time, so I was convinced he could not care less whether he listened to the piano or remained seated in the kitchen. Why would he, when he seemed so tuned out of life besides his basic needs of food and sleep?

As my mother helped him sit down on the couch, I turned from my notes to face him. I gave him a smile, which had just become a formality -- a search for some recognition of a man I once knew, whom now I could barely remember. What I can remember, however, is how brutal his regression was to witness. He had lost the ability to speak, and soon after that, what seemed like the ability to understand. He would gesticulate, but a few waves of the hand accompanied by indecipherable grunts left me confused and him unsatisfied. Trying to reach some level of communication with him only became more difficult as he became less responsive.

As expected, my smile was met with a blank stare.

Turning back around to face the keys, I began practicing, hoping that he wouldn't try walking back to the kitchen, or grunting for food, or anything that would make me have to stop playing again. I didn't want to lose focus.

I was in the middle of struggling through one of my tougher songs, just about to give up and work on something else, when I heard noises coming from behind me. They were something similar to the shuffling of feet. I was deciding whether to turn around and acknowledge the noises when I noticed that they had stopped just as I stopped playing.

Glancing over my shoulder, I saw my grandfather still sitting in the exact same position, but something was very different. His eyes were focused on me, wide-open, intent. It was as if he were waiting for me to continue, bewildered as to why I would have stopped. It was then that I realized he had been tapping his feet to the beat of the music. The shuffle of feet had actually been my grandfather keeping perfect time with the metronome that was ticking beside me. How could he, who seemed to have the attention span of less than a minute, follow the rhythm of a six-minute song?

Shocked, I looked up once more to meet his eyes, and I was sure; he had been listening the entire time. His gaze incited a passion within me, and I quickly returned to the difficult piece with a new determination -- my audience was waiting.

My hands glided over the glossy keys, and my emotions were flowing through my arms, pouring into the piano and reverberating throughout the room. Music filled the air like never before, with my grandfather's feet now acting as my metronome. This, I thought to myself, is why I play. Neither a first place award nor a room full of judges could have given me as much joy as that one moment.

Piano became my only connection to my grandfather, and so it became my second voice. I continued to play for him at home, and at a nursing home in his final days. After he passed away, I returned to play music for others with dementia, keeping in mind the part piano played in transforming my relationship with him. My grandfather taught me that without a form of communication, there is nothing that holds us together. These connections are capable of transcending the greatest divisions, whether it is among friends, families, or nations. Powerful relationships can be made in the least expected ways, even when we are faced with obstacles that seem impossible to overcome.