piano, piano study and aging

The Benefits of Piano Lessons for the Aging student

Despite the raging battle on Capitol Hill over health care legislation that threatened the loss of insurance to millions if enacted, a particularly vulnerable population of SENIORS engaged in music study, found sanctuary in a daily connection to the piano. Their “escape” to a universe of loving immersion became a mental prompt at the start of many long distance lessons. With a redirection of anger and frustration into expressive keyboard channels, these “aging” pupils braved a difficult transition of power in Washington (D.C.) without skipping a beat.

From my hub in Liberal, activist Berkeley, while imparting instruction to a Kentuckian at the polar opposite end of the political spectrum, a common musical journey was forged that neutralized our differences within the safe boundaries of a Beethoven Adagio (Sonata Pathetique) As a result, a rapprochement played out despite a house pet’s intrusion upon our conciliatory moments.

The following week, a “Make America Great” Trump rally moved into Louisville, triggering a lesson cancellation and temporary feelings of ill will.

Yet the fleeting relapse of relations was offset by Ludwig’s signature outpouring that promoted an enduring peace over the long haul.


Musical sublimation to new heights of distraction from Fake News and attendant political shenanigans, are not the only benefits of piano study among the over 60 set. Tenacious seniors are awakened to improvements in short and long-term memory as a direct result of a carefully built, layered learning foundation that’s composed of baby step advances.

Decisions and trials related to fingering, for example, tease neurotransmitters out of passivity, creating new “connections” that can have long-lasting effects–that is, if students stimulate them on a daily basis. For seasoned music travelers who fall into the advanced level category, analyses of a J.S. Bach Fugue within the woven texture of interactive voices, is equal to a brain massage generating convolutions to the exponential. Even mapping cadences, dynamic shifts, and noting rudimentary phrase markings, spark neurological gains that carry over from the practice room to life’s many diverse activities.

A cognitive/affective/kinesthetic triad imbued in consistently MINDFUL practicing demands riveted concentration that chases away demons of fuzzy recall and forgotten names of friends who elude aging adults at the supermarket. In a struggle to make word associations in order to retrieve “tip-of-tongue” identities of concerts attended a few months back, or to dredge up the latest telecommunication breach on the Do Not Call list, tenacious, returning-to-the-piano seniors are thankfully assured that the piece placed on the piano rack is the one assigned to them from the previous week. This is a harbinger of promise, since a new composition that has acquired a sacred status among those previously tossed aside prematurely, will survive any *abortive attempts.
(*Right to Life, or Choice partisans, notwithstanding)


In conjunction with a senior’s committed regimen of quality keyboard explorations, many self-labeled “troopers,” will exercise their mind and body away from the piano, in healthful walks, or forays to the local gym.

(“Gym…for the body machine…and Music for the soul is a good Duet.”)–Comments attached by a Facebook friend.


In fact, social interactions in a musical context can transpire in chance meetings on the Yoga mat or in the locker room.

By way of a personal anecdote, I bumped into a NYC High School of Performing Arts (“P.A.”) grad, class of 1958 (a bit before my time), who shot the breeze at the Downtown ‘Y’- forgetting my name only the second time we met at the Gravitron. I returned the fuzzy favor at our third serendipitous encounter by the Universal Gender rest room. She happened to be looking for an able technician to tune and regulate her C3 Yamaha grand, so in a blink, I tapped into my memory bank with rhyme scheme assistance, and retrieved the name of one surviving practitioner who broke a chain of plundering assaults on my Steinway.

Upon my fourth run-in with the “P.A.” alum at the Pull-Up machine, she had voiced gratitude for my sterling referral, but couldn’t quite remember the fellow’s name or what he did. In response, I urged her to practice more regularly given the activity’s benign crossover effect on her brain and memory function.

(For most seniors, the cardiovascular effects of a Mindful focus, with attendant respiratory benefits, are enough to draw them back to the piano bench with alacrity and enthusiasm. It’s a no brainer!)


The Aging piano student and Isolation

Loneliness, an associated cause of unhappiness in the life of a senior, is positively addressed in the sphere of music study. Students far and wide, not only find a human “connection” to music of the Masters, but they often join Piano Clubs to share their love for music. One of my pupils from Edinburgh who relishes the quality of her retirement, is eager to brief me on her latest play date in the convivial community environment of kindred pianists of all levels. Apparently, they listen with empathy and affection, creating enduring bonds that spill over into the Internet transmitted lesson environment. Dreaded “nerves” that might have been a curse in a former life, seem to diminish with each experience of benevolent camaraderie. And it’s worth mentioning, that some retirees, still on detox from grilling, pressure-cooker corporate work environments find relief in an amateur music-making milieu.

Finally, the perks of studying the piano as we age are part of the totality of a life committed to beauty and personal nourishment. In pursuing creative development through patient, graduated steps of musical discovery, seniors become more OXYGENATED and alert, with a renewed appreciation for the bonds they make with friends and family during their reluctant breaks from the keyboard.


“The Relation Between Instrumental Musical Activity and Cognitive Aging”



Oliver Sachs: Thoughts about music and Alzheimer’s disease/Dementia



Musicophelia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sachs


Joining the league of left-handers by an accident of fate!

All it took was a miss-step to catapult me into unfamiliar left hand territory. Or more accurately, a crater in the sidewalk bordering a busy downtown Berkeley intersection snagged my sole and forced me down with death-defying impact, tearing skin off my chin and knees while shoving my body weight on a tucked under right arm.

bad sidewalk

(Intersection of Hearst and Martin Luther King Jr. Way)
cracked street

Thrown off balance with my left hand clasping a soaked paper bag with over-ripe persimmons that splattered the sidewalk in an orange sun burst, I lay face down for what seemed like a shell-shocked eternity, surrounded by the din of vehicles veering around me like I was a dead cat on the road.

After the most disorienting ten minutes of my life, an elderly Chinese couple in the company of a mature-looking grandson, approached me in my sprawled out prone position, taking special care to nudge my body upright, handing me tissues to absorb blood from contusions and remove sticky residue that migrated to my sweater and pants.

Slowly regaining my composure, winding my way in measured baby steps to the Bart station, I experienced an uncomfortable limp to my gait, with a burdensome heaviness in my knees. At this point, I was still unaware of damage to my hands, wrists and arms that would be revealed once I lay my bones down to rest on my plush sofa.

lump on arm

Once safely home, I endured a rough evening, permeated by a steady crescendo of pain that had an intolerable rush at 3 a.m. Sunday, after I’d ice-packed my right arm rolling its freeze-filled folds down my wrists and hands.

When my pain threshold tipped over a narrow line even after downing aspirin tablets, I contacted the Kaiser Permanente Emergency services, and soon cabbed my way to the hospital. It was 4 a.m. and the Berkeley Half Marathon wreaked havoc over established car routes, steering traffic in odd, roundabout directions.

Finally entering the Hospital parking lot, and breezing through sliding doors toward a metal detector check, my battered body earned a steady barrage of right-arm centered x-rays that ushered in unwelcome news of a fracture to my guiding light thumb that had steered me mellifluously through the Circle of Fifths. And early assessment of my elbow revealed gathering fluid that my doctor suspected was hiding a fracture. The continuing radiologic surveillance he mentioned, would aim at establishing certainty about my supple right wrist status in prep for a longer course of treatment. For now a cast and sling would be the immediate remedy.

The story with its lack of resolution, had a notable twist that perhaps O’Henry would have fleshed out. Just hours before my cataclysmic spill, I had aided a Parkinson’s disease afflicted friend ambulate the very route I had traversed, but in reverse, leveraging my body through various artful maneuvers so she could find her way home.

Once we arrived, she had invited me in to meet her precious feline, Bathsheba who was not camera shy as she nibbled on wheat grass.

As it grew dark, in a flowing hour of cat loving, I knew it was time for me to depart. Dim lit streets added a certain trepidation as Saturday drew to a close. Surely the darkness settling in, was its own harbinger of imminent disaster.

Upon learning of the irony of my fall in the wake of having assisted the shaky journey of an afflicted woman, one of my dear friends prophetically said, “Just remember that no good deed goes unpunished.”

Yet in reviewing events of the past 24 hours, I would have steered punishment toward the City of Berkeley that lets streets and sidewalks deteriorate to dangerous levels of neglect, putting pedestrians at great risk. (Note: The North Berkeley Senior Center is located a few hundred feet from where I was downed)

Meanwhile in the aftermath of my personal tragedy, I’ve resolved to teach piano as a left-hander while I concurrently journey through many diverse life activities.

To this end, I surprised my Book group today when I appeared decked out with a new sling and pink-wrapped cast.

short story sling right side up

Baldwin grand piano, Baldwin piano, new piano, piano, word press, you tube

My New Baldwin Grand Piano Arrives! (on video)

Baldwin from outstide in

Baldwin Grand with lid up plays J.S. Bach Prelude in F minor, BWV 881 (WTC Book 2)

And J.S. Bach Prelude No. 1 in C, Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1

Mozart Sonata in C, K. 545, Allegro



Berkeley, Berkeley CA, Berkeley rental, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano blog

The challenges of a pianist seeking housing

In this no thanks for the memories flashback, I recount the bias I’d experienced along the housing trail, when as a musician, pet owner and mother of a grown daughter, I applied for a Berkeley lease. (Add a grand piano to the mix, and my rental opportunities nearly evaporated)

As it played out 2 years ago:


1) Early yesterday morning I schlepped up to the East Bay on Amtrak to check out a rental that hadn’t yet reached Craig’s List, CAL Rentals, Trulia, Apartment Hunters Z, Roomster, Facebook Market Place, Oodle, Noodle or Poodle.net. (Was I going bonkers, dreaming up more housing listings with cats YES, dogs NO, cats and dogs, hooray, or GO AWAY! NOW and forever!)

In most cases, hundreds of ads on Craig’s vanished with a cat box mouse click, meaning that You Tube sensation Aiden cat, my older daughter’s feline during law school and then adopted by me, would be sent packing–orphaned at 7! WE couldn’t bear it!

(Did I say WE?!)

2) “We” is anathema–Renters with cottages and in-laws setups ARE HORRIFIED THAT A SIGNIFICANT other might invade a cat-less space.

Case in point–Yesterday afternoon I was hounded by two feisty mutts (big ones) who had the run of a once promising rental property–that is, before it became a real-time house of horrors!

As soon as the front gate opened, I was surrounded by two hyper-adrenalized, foaming at the mouth canines who were unsure of my pedigree. Was I a dog’s best friend or not?

Was this a harbinger of things to come?

The cottage had been floated by me, in response to my BPN (Berkeley Parents Network Newsletter) housing wanted post. From e-mailed pics sent by the renter, the rooms looked bright and airy. The cottage, however was clearly a converted garage. And in person, it looked like a moderate security prison with dungeon-like doors. Two dogs from HADES blocked the entrance as if trained to do so.

Once I was cautiously escorted inside the living area by the homeowners, the door was slammed shut as a mandatory measure to keep the pooches out–long enough, that is, to steer them over to their Alpo bowls. Such a well-timed break, allowed me to fantasize a huge makeover of this dreary and depressing “cottage.” (It was the antithesis of a fairytale princess dancing about with chirping sparrows perched on her wrists.)


Did I dare mention Aiden cat and my daughter in the same breath? The dungeon suddenly darkened. A demonizing spirit would hex my 29-year old, who was navigating a difficult job landscape in the midst of a faltering economy?

From the homeowner’s perspective, Frankenstein’s extended family was about to exorcise the premises. (But what about their evil dogs?)

Both husband and wife bolted back that my cat was the real deal breaker, not my daughter.

They explained how the feline would arouse the dogs’ wild instincts causing them to attack my precious pet, even within his safe? sanctuary.

(Ironically, my classical music-making was not a problem.)


Marilyn, G., a Berkeley-based realtor and friend, carefully instructed me how to respond to housing ads, to improve my chances of landing a good rental.

1) Don’t include your signature in your email inquiries! (i.e. web and you tube links)
2) Don’t say you’re “a musician.” It has a bad connotation.
2) Replace the M word with CP, “Classical Pianist”
3) And don’t dare introduce another warm body beside yourself into a cottage or in-law.

Heaven forbid..

I thought back on the canines that had corralled me. The homeowners insisted that they could spring out the front gate and escape if I didn’t physically steer them back into the yard.

That’s why I was urged to stay within the cottage, and minimize visitors?

Did they hear me say, “piano students,” inadvertently, in the same breath as “friends?”

Marilyn would have excoriated me for such an ill-timed leak. She insisted that I needed the lease before I shared the intimate details of my life’s work.

Was she kidding? Or had she gone berserk? (in the spirit of namesake, Bezerkeley)


I noticed a narrow, fenced-off space behind the garage, or should I say, “cottage” that could have been a safe haven for Aiden, me, my daughter and the few students that would trickle in to take lessons.

No such luck! The homeowner husband firmly announced his intentions to re-landscape the back area, so the mutts could get their exercise scaling a lower barrier.

Watch out, Aiden! It was worse than a looming mountain lion attack!

That was my cue to beat it out of there as fast as possible, heading a mile up Shattuck to see a rental off Eunice.

Greeted by a chipper young gardener, I was guided through a pleasing in-law space with a trail of students right behind me.

Still, it was a relief not to see dogs, only deer traces of trampled foliage. (It was definitely an improvement over the bald patches of dried grass and howling dogs at the previous location)

Of more concern, were 12 steep wooden stairs that could challenge even highly skilled piano movers.

Oops! Did I mention a “piano” to the gardener, without realizing it?

Marilyn insisted that I should soft pedal it. (no pun intended)

But how could I sneak a piano over those steps without being noticed?

We both knew that the piano was part of my baggage and could be a deal breaker if the elderly man who occupied and owned the home, objected to Chopin or Brahms’s music seeping through the walls into the dining room.


The place stole my heart with its polished hard wood floors, redwood paneling and divine acoustical environment. I could easily imagine my piano, center stage, in the den.

In my fervent excitement, I offered the gardener 6 months rent in cash, but it didn’t fly. Rental practices had changed.

As instructed, I filled out still another application as I sat at a table, overlooking a gorgeous ravine.

A thick packet containing bank statements, a recent laudatory credit report, my record of long established home ownership and rental history, plus a generous list of references, had been lumped in with the paperwork.

Suddenly, I noticed a mom and daughter coming through the gate. They had a glimmer of hope in their eyes.

Surely the youngster had the edge on me in this housing market though in the old days, a first knock rental inquiry, earned an advantage, but not so in the Millennium.

Homeowners often had showings for days, and collected reams of paper to stuff in recycle bins. By and large, they favored students, because of their short stays. Rents could be hiked after leases expired. A healthy turnover of tenants was desirable.


After a long day of cottage/in-law hunting, I headed back to Downtown Berkeley Bart, destination Richmond Amtrak station.

Once on board the train, I recapped the day’s events and made sure to jot them all down.

Part 2, Continuing Journey–getting desperate

I’d say I’m averaging 6 hours per day looking for the purr-fect Bezerkeley rental. In fact, I just slapped down $325 for an ad in the Daily Californian, only to discover that the pricey paste-up landed in the Daily CLOG SECTION, about 5 pages into the rag. (Well it’s the Internet version, so it’s still a bunch of mouse clicks to get to a student blog pile-up) Basically, I’m COMPETING with eager beaver brainiacs to find a place in the “right part of town.” Might that  be  Arch, Spruce, Oxford, Bonita,  La Conte, La Loma, Milvia, etc.—or the whole Gourmet Ghetto?–with easy access to.

Did I say “ghetto?”–Apparently NOT  what I associate with certain neighborhoods in New York City, my birthplace.

In so many words,  my reserved box on Daily CAL  with ” CLASSICAL PIANIST, CAT, GROWN DAUGHTER, and PIANO,” is a  threat to the well-being of most landlords, that is, if I’m  a renter in perpetuity. (No rent hikes for the next—–years) Fill in the blank. Did someone say “rent control?”

Go somewhere else! No Cats, besides!

A realtor friend in the know, tried to head off a housing blunder by e-mailing ahead of my inquiry.  (It was an in-law set–up  ABOVE ground, just a stone’s throw from the GHETTO)

“Don’t worry, this neat and clean lady is seeking a short-term rental– Has plans to  buy in a year.”

Translation: She won’t get too cozy, or frame her “Home Sweet Home” embroidery on the wall.

And what about the grown daughter?

Not a boon to any rental application–with one exception–If she racked up 60K per annum.

Too many adult children had moved back with their parents as a safe haven from financial disaster.

Did I say “parents?”

In Berzerkeley,  I was on the right side of the  rental candidate curve, having no significant other–gay or straight–but only if I promised not to PARTY or ransack the place.

Wait a minute! The same landlord would take a student over me who partied all night.

No doubt the tenant would be pot-sniffing at a new location in less than a year. (automatic rent hike!)–while I practiced Chopin Mazurkas by candlelight.

To the contrary, the roaming renter would be bound for one of the Co-ops–like infamous Cloyne Court on Ridge, with communal refrigerators leaking rotten vegetables. (I recalled the sickening aroma when two of my CAL kids lived there)

I’d be sipping a Ginseng/Green Tea sunburst cocktail while listening to Glenn Gould’s “Goldberg Variations.” Who could care less? No cause for a banging on my walls..


In summary, I’m willing to reward FREE, life-long piano lessons to the first home finder who lands me a nice place with the following specs:

700 Sq. ft min.–in North Berkeley or Westbrae–NOT anywhere near Tilden or Wild Canyon.. no Arlington or Kensington.

Must be BART accessible!

Can be a cottage, or in-law (not underground and musty) that affords freedom to practice without complaint at civilized hours.

And finally, a cat  and grown daughter must be part of the package without threat of eviction. For the digs, I’m willing to  pay $1600 per month, though I’d prefer to shell out $1500.

ME: High Credit score, Excellent refs–former homeowner for 25 years to 2005–immaculate rental history following. Oberlin grad and the rest.


Back to my floating Daily CAL ad that  appears and disappears in a heart beat.

If you spot it on the fly, click it fast enough to obtain contact info.

But just in case you have eye-hand coordination problems, here’s my e-mail address:  shirley_kirsten@yahoo.com

POST SCRIPT: Since Fall 2012, I’ve been happily nestled into a tight North Berkeley space surrounded by my pianos and webcams. The neighbors don’t mind my practicing, and they occasionally drop in to listen. What can be better?

Domenico Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti birthday, Murray Perahia, piano blog, Richard Goode, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, The Musical Offering Cafe, The Musical Offering Cafe in Berkeley, Zellerbach Hall

Celebrating Domenico Scarlatti’s birthday at the Musical Offering Cafe in Berkeley (Video)

musical offering parking lot mural

A great prelude to Richard Goode’s Berkeley piano recital was my brief stop-off at the colorful Musical Offering Cafe (2430 Bancroft Way) which sits directly across from Zellerbach Hall. Even the parking lot that hosts guests at both locations, has a gorgeous mural that lures concertgoers to the charming, arts-centered bistro. Packed with Classical CDs that spill into a space reserved for fine dining, the cafe is resonating with love for the great music Masters.

Since it was October 26th, Domenico Scarlatti’s birthday, my piano student, Jocel, and I fully intended to honor the composer by purchasing a few sonata-filled Cds.

That’s how a SONY Classical disk, Murray Perahia plays Handel and Scarlatti, landed in Jocel’s hands while I snatched the pianist’s Bach Concerti album.

Perahia album cropped

The Musical Offering is a great place to eat, schmooze with other Classical music mavens, and grab a few bargain priced CDs.

So on my next outing to Zellerbach, I’ll be sure to spend more time sifting through album files while sipping a cafe latte.




Berkeley, Berkeley CA, classissima, classissima.com, Franz Schubert, Franz Schubert sonatas, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano, Richard Goode, Schubert, Zellerbach Hall, Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, Zellerbach in Berkeley California

A Feast of pianist, Richard Goode’s Artistry and a walk down memory lane

I hand-selected a particular recital for an outing with my adult student, Jocel. While he’d suggested a Yuja Wang foray at Davies Concert Hall in San Francisco, I prodded him to first experience the sublime artistry of Richard Goode. (Location: Zellerbach Auditorium in Berkeley, CA, CAL PERFORMANCES series)

We were not disappointed.

Richard Goode Program

The last three Sonatas of Schubert were masterfully played, infused with a singing tone that reached the very pinnacle of vocal expression idealized by the composer in his body of lieder. (songs) And while the pianist produced a liquid sound, he wove a tapestry of colors through sonorities and passagework that had an ingrown allegiance to form. His phrases, well spun, had a larger meaning — motivic threads, sequences, transitional bridges, and harmonic progressions synthesized to produce powerful emotional expression and structural meaning.


On a personal note, Richard Goode dates back to my NYC days, when the late Harris Goldsmith, Classical music reviewer at High Fidelity Magazine was a close companion. Such friendship borne of our mutual love for music, created unusual opportunities to partake of great performances up close and personal. At post concert receptions I met virtuosos such as Richard Goode, Ursula Oppens, and Richard’s close friend, Murray Perahia, though the latter was a classmate at the New York City High School of Performing Arts. Both Richard and Murray were regulars at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and were Marlboro alums, under the mentorship of Rudolf Serkin.

In the late 1960’s, Goldsmith invited me to hear “Richard” play the Schumann Fantasy at a Mannes College of Music Masterclass presented by Karl Ulrich Schnabel. (The reading had a signature sweep and beauty of phrasing that left an indelible memory) At the time, Murray was taking up conducting with Carl Bamberger, and both he and Richard had carved out rich chamber music careers before embarking upon their solo journeys.

Fast forward to October 26, 2014: Richard Goode, the seasoned, long-term emissary of divine music-making graced Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley and moved many audience members to tears. I was one of them.

Thank you, Richard for an inspiring afternoon!

me and Richard Goode



Interviews with Richard Goode on Israeli television

Interview with a Pianist’s pianist (San Francisco Classical Voice)


Bach French Suite in G, Leon Fleisher, piano addict

What happened during the Earthquake!

From Berkeley, California

At 3:19 a.m. I had just revisited my recently posted video of Bach’s Sarabande (French Suite in G)–a foreboding?

… when suddenly the wall I was leaning against, ( while seated at the piano), started swaying from side-to-side. (somewhat like swells to crescendo < with releases >)

Next, I felt a tremolo under my right pedal-ready foot, with a few erratic accents. Mother Nature wasn’t LISTENING..or did she HEAR it BEFORE it played out. A NO NO to begin with. Pianist/mentor Leon Fleisher would have agreed, in his riveting reiterations at Masterclasses:

“Don’t play until you know ahead of time what’s going to roll out.”

This temblor definitely ROLLED in waves once it got going–which seemed forever. You could attach a fermata to it:


The Ceiling lights were trilling, or perhaps flickering, a more fine-tuned description.

It was an overall shaky effect— a form of arrhythmia, best treated by a beating metronome.

Mine happened to tip over the edge during the ruckus, pulsating out of synch with Nature’s forces.


NATUR-ally, I stayed put on the piano bench, nervously praying that the treble staff metal sculpture above my head, would stay reinforced to the wall by its two, weakly affixed nails.

(You could surmise that I was living on borrowed time…in rubato style–a moment-to-moment existence, without measure-to-measure planning)

Frankly, when all was said and DONE, it was the longest interval of rumbling I’d experienced since an earthquake centered in Coalinga (land of crickets) shook up my former Central Valley piano room, sending old, tainted Urtext editions, in mudslide fashion off the shelves.

But it was no match for an event beamed in from Brazil by Skype: (Broken chords abounded in a frenzy to CLIMAX!) And then, helplessly, I stood by and imagined the carnage.