Sharing Stories – The Piano Lady

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Music is at the core of her being.

The joy in the room is palpable as older adults at Shaftesbury Park listen to fellow resident Audrey Vail play the piano with rapt attention.  There is a spontaneous exuberance as stories and songs are shared and memories made through the universal language of music.

An Entertainer Is Born

The most successful performers possess skill, patience, compassion, and the ability to connect with their audience.

Born in 1931 Brooklyn NY, young Audrey naturally gravitated towards entertaining others and telling stories to make people laugh.  It was the piano, though, that captured her imagination; like a siren’s call, it drew her in.  So strong was the allure that, upon seeing a piano exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the 8-year-old girl slipped away from her parents, only to be found tinkling the ivories in front of a crowd of curious onlookers!

When Audrey was 10 years old, her father bought a piano and registered the budding artist in classes at the Henry Street Settlement Music School. She spent the next 12 years studying classical theory and performance, beginning a lifelong love affair.

“I had a natural gift”, says Audrey. “I heard melody line and chords just came naturally.”

 A Musician Who Broke Barriers

Woman in little black dress and short blonde hair sitting at a piano.
An Evening With Audrey, 1974

“I was cute, very short, and could hold an audience” Audrey describes herself.

At a time when women fought for recognition in a male dominated industry, the tenacious New Yorker’s ability as a pianist made her a sought-after entertainer.

One day, the Vice President at WQXR Radio heard about my prowess on the piano and invited me to his home.  ‘Come and we can have a jam session or whatever’, he said.”

So, Audrey went to New Jersey.

“He opened the door, and I was in shock.  The room was filled with 20 professional musicians and 2 grand pianos face to face. He introduced me to the room full of men, ‘Well guys, here’s the pianist for the night’.”

The night was a success and the gigs poured in. With the support of musicians from bands like Harry James, Claude Thornhill, and Duke Ellington, Audrey went to work.  She performed at top venues all over North America, packing rooms on the lounge circuit for decades.

In 1973, when Audrey was 40 years old, her then husband moved the family – by this time they had 3 children and a dog – to Winnipeg.

Despite her agents concern about ageism, she continued to book successful engagements. “I never say die and just plugged away,” she says. “Age can be an asset if used properly. I had them lined up outside  venues like the North Star Hotel, Silver Slipper, and the St Regis.”

A Crescendo of Caring

In 1976, Audrey went off the road.  Divorced and working odd jobs, she volunteered to start a music therapy pilot program at St. Boniface Hospital.

The program was a success.

In part to secure her future, and in part to further her ambition to bring music to prisons and hospitals around Manitoba, Audrey entered nursing school at age 51.

“I had to work very hard.  I was the oldest in the class”, remembers Audrey.

“When I graduated, I called St. Boniface and told them I got my RN. They gave me a job immediately. I worked in geriatric family practice for 10 years.” During her decade as a nurse, Audrey continued to entertain – by harnessing the power of music to help her patients in clinical settings.

“I had doctors dancing with patients.  Nurses dancing with doctors and with patients! I’d hold groups where patients played on tin cans with spoons – they were the orchestra.”

Music As Medicine

These days, music is more available than ever before. For those who carry smartphones or tablets with them, hundreds of thousands – if not tens of millions of songs – are simply touch away. If you are a caregiver for an older person, your smartphone can become one of the most useful tools in your possession in helping connect seniors through music.

Music has the power to stimulate feelings of well-being by evoking powerful memories and emotions. Both listening to and creating music can benefit people in these ways:

  • It provides an emotional outlet.
  • It offers a distraction during treatment.
  • It improves overall physical rehabilitation.
  • It facilitates movement and the connection between the brain and body.
  • It taps into long term memory.
  • It builds community and joy.

To get the most out of music therapeutically, it’s important to play music that am older adult enjoys and connects with emotionally.

Life After Retirement

Never one to stay idle, after retiring from her second career, Audrey spent the next decade volunteering at a crisis line and teaching sex education in the community.

“I worked with the elderly, people in strife; I treated marginalized people like humans and with humour. It made me feel good that I was able to help people,” says Audrey.

When Audrey was 63 years old, she met her current husband, John. After they married, John and Audrey travelled, eventually settling into retirement.

Within days of moving into the Shaftsbury Park residence, Audrey was already a community feature, having been dubbed “The Piano Lady”.

For an hour every Thursday afternoon, Audrey sits down at the piano in the dining room of the Winnipeg seniors’ home.  The Piano Lady plays from memory. No matter the request, Audrey remarkably knows the tune.

“The seniors really listen to her, says Anastasia Atkinson, Health and Wellness Director. “Not just because it’s one of their peers who plays their favourites, but because she can read the crowd, without fail giving them the right song at the right time.”

“We very much enjoy living here”, says Audrey of the residence. “The people seem awfully happy …  Because management is that way. They speak to you and the people who live here walk down the hall smiling and they greet you.  People are always greeting you!”

“I’m 90 and still playing – they can’t get rid of me!”

If you want to find out more about how our music activities enrich the lives of seniors, give us a call or schedule a visit. We have retirement homes and living centres in Ottawa, assisted living in Saskatoon, and senior living options across the country.

Writer – Julianna McLeod

Julianna is a health and wellness expert at All Seniors Care. Her mission is to create content that empowers seniors to form sustainable solutions for lasting health and happiness. She is an experienced writer, editor, and Recreational Therapist living in Toronto.

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