Meet Jeanne Krausman

A long musical life

I sometimes wonder if I should have done something different with my life, but I usually conclude that I'm not willing to give up on my first love yet. It is, for me, a calling. Music is important; it makes a difference in the world and in individual lives. Jeanne Krausman’s life is a perfect illustration of a life transformed by music.

Finding meaning, hope, and forward movement: Jeanne Krausman. (Photo courtesy of the author)

My friend Jeanne is 90. I met her eight years ago, after a concert I performed in Montclair, New Jersey. She recorded it (without my permission!), shared the resulting cassette with me, and asked me for a lesson. I wasn't sure she'd follow through, but she did, taking the bus to Lancaster and staying overnight in my daughter's bedroom. The next morning, she played pieces by Chopin and others, documenting my comments on her tape recorder. She was afflicted with arthritis even then, but that did nothing to quell her determination to make music. I felt a bit intimidated, hoping I was giving her enough to justify the hours she'd spent traveling, but she seemed to be soaking it up.

Jeanne was a high school chorus instructor and a piano teacher, but she was never a professional concert pianist. Since she retired, her main musical activities have been voluntary. Until four years ago, she was presenting cantatas and concerts at her synagogue; she's still directing choirs and leading sing-alongs at assisted living facilities all over New Jersey. She freely admits to suffering from anxiety, for which she takes medication, but that didn't stop her from deciding to perform solo recitals for friends, for which her lesson with me was partial preparation.

When she was 61, a teacher had asked if she'd ever performed by herself. She hadn’t, but the teacher said, “You will.” Four years later, she did, and found the experience satisfying enough to persist. At 73, she performed Schumann's Carnaval; at 78, Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata. Her tempi were “just past the line of acceptable,” but these are monumental works for any pianist. And she memorized them!

A musical bat mitzvah

The concerts for which she sought my assistance were much less ambitious. She gave herself a “musical bat mitzvah” at 83, followed, at 85, by seven consecutive daily performances of a short living room recital. Her swan song, with pieces spanning her musical education, was meant to happen as a celebration of her 90th birthday, but her eyesight was beginning to fail, so she moved it up a year. After that, she intended to retire from playing the piano. Fate intervened. When a choir member told her about Seymour Bernstein, she was deeply inspired, and knew she had to take a lesson with the famous pianist. She contacted him, and he agreed to teach her. In the end, Jeanne was too intimidated to play her best, but she is still grateful to Mr. Bernstein for a priceless gift.

Ethan Hawke’s documentary about Bernstein features his performance of the last movement of the Schumann Fantasy, Op. 17, a piece whose beauty intoxicated me, too, when I heard it for the first time as an undergraduate. I finally learned it as a doctoral candidate; ironically, it was when I performed it, in its entirety, in Montclair that I finally felt like I had done it justice.

A woman obsessed

Jeanne is obsessed. She thinks about the piece every day, trying to figure out its power, trying to put it into words. The endeavor is impossible — and beside the point. She is 90, with failing eyesight, and has recently started to use a walker. Life is “difficult.” And yet she wakes up every morning excited by the prospect of discovering something new about this enduring masterpiece, spurred on by the challenge of making it truly her own. Of questioning. She acknowledges that her journey is nearing its end, but she has found meaning, hope, and forward movement, something that helps her transcend her physical frailties.

When Jeanne called to tell me about the lesson and the Schumann, she started by saying that I was the only person who would understand. Thus, in a sense, I was able to give her a gift, but the gift of inspiration she gives me whenever we talk is far greater. The future can be a scary thing, especially when we start to realize that most of our life may already be in the past. Yet as long as there is another day ahead of us, we can still become excited by its mysteries and opportunities, if we choose to.

Our readers respond

Nancy Franklin

of Stony Brook, NY on January 18, 2016

Very sweet article about Jeanne! My mom and she were very close as kids, so I feel a very deep connection to her despite the fact that I've only met her a few times. She has always been a standout in my family. Fiercely independent and courageous, as well as having the family trait of being an extraordinarily good and decent person. I don't think I've actually ever heard her perform, but I know how much music means to her, and it's so cool to read your description of her devotion and accomplishments. Thanks for making my day!

Maritza Hame

of Hackettstown, NJ on January 19, 2016

As I lay in my nice warm bed today, I come across this wonderful article, shared through Mrs. Krausman. I couldn't help, but share my story. My name is Maritza Hame and Mrs. Krausman was my piano teacher at the age of 14. I am almost 50 now, and I can truly say how very fortunate and grateful I am to have her in my life. As much appreciation as Mrs. Krausman has for her music, that's how much I treasure having her in my life; and only she knows what an immense feeling that is. She has been an inspiration to all the lives she's touched, even if for a few minutes of conversation.

I am the testimony of what an extraordinary person she is. At Bushwick High School in Brooklyn (which no longer exists; by the way), our classroom was very limited as far as pianos. We had three pianos, three casios, and about 30 students. How did she manage? To this day, as a teacher myself, I don't know how she did it. Then again, I tell myself that she has the patience of an angel and the determination and strength of a dozen horses. In all of my life I've never met anyone so determined to succeed in what they put their mind to. These are one of the gifts that she bestowed upon me; although I didn't know it when I decided to become a school teacher. I was 35, with newborn twins and a son who had just been diagnosed with autism; determined to get my teaching degree and follow in the footsteps of my former teacher. Little did I know this, until I reflected back on my life 36 years later. However, it is her encouragement and her enthusiasm that makes anyone who crosses her path feel loved and respected.

I have to say that in all the years I've known her, I wasn't aware of the anxiety she suffers. She is determined not to let this get in her way. She always carries a smile on her face, offers advise and words of encouragement, and is truly an inspiration to us all. Mrs. Krausman. you are truly remarkable, and I love you!

Rachel Spaulding

of Montclair, NJ on January 21, 2016

About seven or so years ago I had asked a very talented voice student of mine who her piano teacher was, because I was looking for someone to teach my son. She gave me Jeanne’s number with a bit of trepidation, saying something like, “It’s more than just piano.” I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I decided to call Jeanne anyway. My son, though really smart, had some learning challenges at the time, so it had to be someone who would be patient with him and understand the complexities.

When I called Jeanne, she told me very bluntly that I had to be prepared for how she becomes involved with families. She also said she had to meet with us before she would agree to teach my son. I was all at once intrigued, charmed, nervous, and worried that she might not take my son as a student. She drove over the following afternoon and we all chatted — my son, his younger sister, and I — for at least half an hour. I think my kids also sang her a song, which very possibly was the thing that sold us to her.

I was floored by the strong, totally “with it,” feisty, and determined presence she had in her 80s, and the many questions she asked about me and my family. That was the beginning of an extraordinary relationship, one I treasure with all my heart. She taught my son with patience, and would always talk to me at great length after each lesson to say, “I hope I’m reaching him. I hope I’m doing it right.” I would smile, knowing that my son adored her, and I’d assure her how grateful I was for her work with my son.

Ultimately, after about a year, my son did not practice a lot, so I had to stop the lessons. But we stayed friends, and Jeanne also became somewhat of a grandmother figure to both my kids, as our family is sorely lacking in that department. Eventually, it came time for my son’s bar mitzvah and I was getting nervous that he was not practicing his Hebrew enough. In came Jeanne again. When I called her frantically one day, she told me to stop worrying, she would work with him. She came once a week and also demanded that he call her to check in. Sometimes my son would get frustrated and put his head down on the table, but she’d wait patiently until he’d begin reciting his Hebrew or completing his workbook again. Jeanne also ended up gracing us with her talents by accompanying me in a song I sang to my son at his bar mitzvah, and also accompanying the cantor. She was amazing, and her playing made the ceremony so special for me!

Interestingly, my son (who is now a teenager) sings in the advanced choir at school as well as taking part in productions by the Opera Theatre of Montclair, N.J., and I know some of Jeanne’s training has something to do with it. I attended one of the concerts Jeanne gave in her apartment mentioned in this article, and I also went into the city to see her perform at the temple. Jeanne has also attended my own performances. Jeanne’s talent and passion for music goes without saying, but moreover, it is the depth of friendship she offers that is absolutely stunning. I feel like I can talk to her about anything, and I mean anything! She is relentless in her curiosity about others, and she also does not shy away from being open about herself. She has embraced me and my family in the most special way, and we embrace her.

For her intelligence, honesty, and thoughtfulness as a person, for her never-ending quest for artistry, and for her continuous and intentional life's journey, Jeanne is an amazingly inspirational person!

Deanna Boettcher

of Burlingame, CA on January 24, 2016

Thank you for sharing your story and your experience with Jeanne. I know her, because she rented an apartment to my mother in Brooklyn, way back before I was born. But she and my mother remained great friends over the years and I have been lucky enough to spend some quality time with her. Jeanne is an amazing woman, and I am so proud to know her.

Paulette Burgan Waldron

of Brooklyn, NY on January 31, 2016

Mrs. Krausman, to me, is a person of integrity, as strong as a pillar, compassionate and a true confidant. She is always sharing her passion for music and a positive encourager. I know this. Having had the honor of being her student, I was fourtunate to be able to confide in her about my teen pregnancy. We both cried. I shall remain forever grateful for her love and friendship. At 68, I still exibit much emotion, at times, allow my appreciative feelings to capture me. I shall always love you, Mrs. Krausman.

Felicita Rodriguez

of Brooklyn, NY on March 23, 2016

I am Jeanne Krausman's rose. I sang at her retirement in the high school she worked at. I must say that Ms. Krausman is truly one of a kind. Not only did she inspire me to take a chance when I sang in front of people, but she also taught me how to find beauty in music, no matter the genre. I will always love her and I know that she will always inspire others until her song has played its last note.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.