A long musical life

Meet Jeanne Krausman

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

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.

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.

What, When, Where

Seymour: An Introduction. A documentary directed by Ethan Hawke. Available at Netflix.

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