Below is the full interview with Carol Rosenberger by Robert Schulslaper published by Fanfare Magazine:
The Land of Legend is home to brave heroes and heroines who struggle valiantly against seemingly insurmountable obstacles before emerging triumphant. Pianist and Delos General Director Carol Rosenberger may not have had to vanquish evil sorcerers, ravenous demons, or vicious ogres, but her essential being was threatened by a crippling disease, polio, that only years of therapy and an indomitable will could subdue. Her memoir, To Play Again, movingly recounts this life-altering experience, along the way introducing us to the unforgettable people who supported her throughout her difficult journey.
Why did you wait until now to tell your story?
I began writing this book some thirty-five years ago. I sent a few draft chapters to my mother and father, and put a copy of the typewritten pages into my vast filing cabinet. My younger brother, Gary, was going through our parents’ belongings after they died in the 1990s. He came across those draft chapters, and immediately called to tell me that I must finish the book. He had those pages photocopied, and sent them to me. By that time, I also had copies of letters I’d written to my parents, to Webster and Lilian Aitken, to Amelia Haygood, and another close friend. Those letters helped me to recall exact detail, and so I worked on the book, intermittently, from the late 1990s through 2015.
Certainly most people know how devastating polio can be, but I’m tempted to say that it’s even worse for those who formerly relied on fine motor coordination in their choice of vocation. Before you were stricken, was playing the piano completely automatic or instinctual?
When I first started to play the piano, I thought only of the beautiful sounds and what those combinations created. Between age ten and age twelve or so, I was aware of developing technique, thanks to the extensive piano exercise and étude material I’d been asked to master. But after that, I was mainly aware of what I wanted to convey in the music I was playing—beautiful shapes, sparkling clarity, rich figuration, deep warmth—and just assumed my muscles would carry out the intent with clarity and appropriate emotion. That all changed after the polio attack, of course. It took many years to figure out alternate neuromuscular routes back to piano playing.
Can you describe how you identify the muscles that can still be mobilized?
After all these years, I can say that I just get as close as possible to what I sense as the musical content. I’ve long since become used to some of the neuromuscular responses not being entirely satisfying to me, but my approach is one of eternal optimism. It’s as if I were saying to myself, “Maybe this is the time it’ll come just a little closer to the ideal!” That approach probably won’t change, as long as I can still go to the keyboard.
As you gradually recovered your facility and assimilated all the “work-arounds” described in the book, were you able once again to just immerse yourself in the music without constantly supervising your technique?
I have incorporated the “work-arounds” well enough that I rarely think about them. It takes me longer to learn a new piece of music than it would take someone with normal neuromuscular equipment. It even takes me longer to bring back a piece I’ve played in the past. But I’ve gotten used to the process. And yes, I can just immerse myself in the music and use what I’ve got!
I’m curious about the therapeutic regimen you practiced that employed diagonal as opposed to vertical or horizontal movements. It reminded me of Tai Chi. Could that sort of “moving mediation” be helpful?
I tried several approaches such as Tai Chi through the years, but what really worked were the exercises physical therapists did with me—most dramatically, the diagonal patterns. Here’s an example: If you’re standing up, arms at your sides, move your right arm straight up in front, so that your arm is vertical and beside your right ear. Now let it go back down again. That is a straight pattern. Next, move your right arm (keeping the arm straight, and keeping your body straight) upwards and across your body to the left side, so that the right hand is pointing above, and to the left of, your left shoulder. Now move it back down again along the same route. That is a diagonal pattern. When one does a whole series of such movements, against just the right amount of resistance, the diagonal versions encourage more motor neurons to join in. Sounds simple, but proved to be miraculous!
You also mention that water therapy played a significant part in your recovery.
Oh, yes, water exercises were crucial during my many physical therapy years, and still are! One can encourage motor neurons to a much greater extent when the muscles are supported by water. I can go through a variety of exercise patterns without damaging any of the sensitive areas, thanks to the perfect and steady support, and smooth resistance, the water offers. I’ve had a little warm water outdoor spa for some thirty years. Originally it was in my garage in Santa Monica, and now it’s in my backyard here in Sonoma.
I didn’t know that the polio virus would seek out those muscles that were getting the most use, in your case, a pianist’s hands, arms, and shoulders. But how about someone like Itzhak Perlman, whose legs are obviously seriously compromised while his hands and arms are apparently unimpaired?
The polio virus attacks in two stages. The first stage, the non-paralytic stage, seems like a flu, with fever, and lasts a few days. Then you get up and move around, thinking you’re recovering nicely. If, a few days later, there is a second fever period of the same virus, that is the paralytic stage. The damage during the paralytic stage depends on what you were doing in between the two fever periods. Perlman was four years old, so I’m assuming that he was happily running around like a typical four-year-old, glad to be feeling better. Maybe playing the violin a little, but at age four, certainly not much. In my case, at age twenty-one, I was practicing the piano many hours per day, trying to make up for the practice time I’d lost during the first fever period. Hence the way the virus targeted the motor neurons I needed most for piano playing.
Are you aware of other pianists who had polio and who faced the sort of challenges you have in order to return to an active concert career?
No, I’m not.
Did James DePreist, a great friend of yours and another polio survivor also play the piano? (By the way, did you know that he had a role in a film, New Year’s Day?)
James DePreist wasn’t a pianist, no. As I recall, he was traveling as a conductor, and thus moving around a lot, when the polio hit him. When Jimmy and I were making our first recording together (Hindemith: The Four Temperaments, in London) we discussed the after-effects of polio. We found it a relief to share with each other the constant need to fight post-polio fatigue. I always felt apologetic about it, and noticed that he did, too. No, I hadn’t heard of the film! (Just interrupted myself to order it from Amazon…)
Are you familiar with the Polish phrase “Nie Dam Sie”? It means something like “I shall never submit.” Artur Rubinstein adopted it as his motto quite early in life. It seems it applies equally to you. Do you know that in his youth he tried to hang himself but luckily didn’t succeed? That failure instantaneously taught him to cherish the fragility, beauty, and value of life, an epiphany that stayed with him for the rest of his days.
I haven’t heard that phrase! I don’t remember my Polish grandmother using it. I didn’t know about Artur Rubinstein’s attempted suicide, either! (My psychology-professional friends used to mention an anger component in suicide. I never felt angry; only dismayed and discouraged.) I certainly do recognize the fragility of life, and greatly cherish its beauty and value. Maybe even more since I had to fight so hard for any kind of physical stability, and tried for so many years to accept what had happened to me. I never considered giving up the fight to get my piano playing back, despite suggestions from others that giving up that fight would be the rational thing to do.
Did you know that Edward Bredshall, your first “serious” teacher, was once known as “The Baby Pianist?” He was apparently a prodigy who both performed and composed as a very young child. It’s also interesting to me that he taught Ruth Laredo (and probably many more well-known pianists).
Bredshall never talked about his childhood, and I didn’t know about the “Baby Pianist” until you sent me that precious sheet music graphic! I’m not really surprised, though. He was brilliant. He had great empathy for child pianists, and I certainly was far from the only one. “Ruthie” Meckler Laredo was four years younger, and we both played on some of Bredshall’s Concerto Evenings. Also featured on those programs were Eleanor Lipkin (Seymour Lipkin’s sister), and a young prodigy, Annette Goldman.
You’ve had two other famous musicians as teachers besides Bredshall; Webster Aitken, and Nadia Boulanger. Did they ever play for you when you were studying with them?
Bredshall was the only teacher who played for me during a lesson. Webster Aitken wanted to draw a musical statement out of me, rather than demonstrating. With Boulanger, we talked about musical structure, and the only thing she played would be a fragment to illustrate a musical principle.
Bredshall was also determined to expand my education. After working with me mostly on exercises and études when I was ten and eleven, he began to spend an increasing amount of time talking to me. Over the six years that followed, our weekly sessions were about two hours long. We’d have an hour or so for the actual lesson, and then he’d spend up to another hour talking to me, telling stories about his time in Europe, going through an opera that was scheduled for broadcast the following Saturday, telling me what recordings I should listen to, suggesting books I should read, giving me his political views, and much more.
Nadia Boulanger had a reputation as a superb but very demanding teacher. I don’t doubt that she maintained her high standard with you but she was at the same time very solicitous of your physical infirmity.
Mademoiselle treated me as if I were one of her beloved godchildren. When I was in the hospital, she sent me wild strawberries from the Forest of Fontainebleau. She was Catholic, and was having prayers said for me all during the acute phase of my illness. She brought her own doctor to see me. When I could finally get to her flat, the famous 36 rue Ballu, for lessons, she went to great lengths to make me comfortable. And even more than that, she treated me as if I were still an important musical talent, even though I’d lost everything, as far as anyone could see. She encouraged me to think through the piano masterpieces I valued most, hearing them in my mind’s ear. That was when I started “living inside” Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, for instance, even though I couldn’t play at all. These were priceless gifts she gave me—gifts I treasure to this day.
In Webster Aitken’s case, although his name was familiar to me I didn’t picture him as a cowboy. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration but I’m sure you realize I’m referring to his Western mode of dress, which made for a surprising juxtaposition with his love for and practice of classical music. I guess I’m more narrow-minded than I thought!
Well, he looked stunning in his Western garb! And I suppose it came from his love for the Southwest, especially Santa Fe, where he and his wife, Lilian, had their summer home. They spent as much time as possible there in Santa Fe. Webster once joked that if he ever had to become a hermit, he would choose Santa Fe as the venue. I’m eternally grateful to Webster and Lilian for giving me so much of their time and attention over the two extended summers I visited them in Santa Fe. They both tried valiantly to help me back, in a variety of ways—such a generous commitment!
I’m extremely fortunate to have had wonderful friends and family, throughout my life, and throughout my long ordeal. Many whom I write about are gone now…Amelia used to say that immortality is the extent to which those left behind can incorporate the qualities they most admired in the departed person. That insight of hers comes to mind every day, as I think of beloved family and friends who were such an important and influential part of my life.
Would you say that Amelia Haygood was the person who had the greatest effect on your life? Although you pay homage to your parents and many others it is Amelia to whom the book is dedicated.
Amelia came along when I needed her the most. She was not only a fine psychologist, but had worked with wounded veterans at the VA hospital in Los Angeles. She helped me to understand what had happened during the years since the polio attack, and what I was facing after the long struggle. She encouraged me in a way no one else could have done. Imagine talking someone with my handicap into playing for her colleagues, partly because of what it would do for them! The emphasis was on their struggles with young people in trouble. She kept telling me how much I could change an exhausting day for these colleagues and friends with just a bit of great classical music—played live by someone as devoted to it as I was. It worked! The very act of playing informally so many times under these circumstances, when I thought I was also doing something for others, enabled me to find new neuromuscular pathways, and led eventually to my going back onstage.
During the many years I knew Amelia, I kept telling her that she should write her own story—it was fascinating, and she was a very good writer. But she was always focused on others, and never got around to writing about herself. So the next best thing I could do was to include some stories about her within my own memoir.
After I recorded the Beethoven Sonata, Op. 111, together with the Appassionata, we had just finished editing the album when I got news that Webster had died. So, of course, I dedicated the recording to him. Then at the time of my mother’s death, I dedicated a special new recording called Reverie to her. This was music that we all found calming and reassuring, and I felt strongly that her beauty of spirit would be with me always. When my father died suddenly, three years later, I had just finished a recording of Barcarolles, called Singing on the Water. The album begins with Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ocean, and includes a Barcarolle written for me by Richard Rodney Bennett, which Dad particularly liked. Since I felt that in some important ways my father had always been my “North Star,” I dedicated the album to him. When it came time for the book’s dedication, there was no question in my mind; it would be dedicated to Amelia.
I don’t suppose you ever dreamt that you would be running a record company one day, a position that directly resulted from your friendship with Amelia.
From its very beginning in 1973, Delos was a mission for Amelia. Everyone who knew her recognized her mission as a remarkable one. Here was a psychologist who’d been working with underprivileged kids in trouble, and teaching social workers and probation officers how to work with families. Now she was trying to create a platform for American classical artists! She and her husband had long been record collectors and classical music enthusiasts, and as she met American musicians, she was concerned that almost none of them had commercial recordings. Her friends and former colleagues from the psychology and social work fields all wanted to help in Amelia’s Delos mission. Not long after I made my own first recording—fascinating piano music of Karol Szymanowski that was virtually unknown in America—I found that I could also be helpful in the recording studio. I learned how to edit, and how to produce a recording. When Amelia and John Eargle, the Delos Chief Engineer, both died in 2007, within six weeks of each other, I recognized that I had to take over or “Baby” Delos, as Amelia always called it, couldn’t survive. So I did, and the learning curve was steep!
Where do you think Delos is headed now in light of the industry’s technological transformation?
We’re making digital downloads available in various formats, including high definition wave files where possible. Both Amelia and John Eargle would be delighted about that. I think Amelia would be surprised at how streaming has taken over as the way a lot of people listen to music. Certainly, that makes the financial model very different from the circulation of physical CDs. But since she always wanted to help make great classical music available to as many fellow human beings as possible, she would have a positive view of this development. The music educator part of me feels the same way!
Whatever the medium, Amelia always vowed to keep important recordings in the Delos catalog. When she and her husband were collecting records, they were sometimes disappointed to find that a title had been deleted from a label’s catalog. I’m sure she’d be happy that our current Delos catalog maintains availability of 600-going-on-700 recordings, including legacies of such now-departed greats as Arleen Auger, John Browning, Eugene Ormandy, Janos Starker, Dmitri Hvorostovsky… well, it’s a long list by now. She would also be happy about our recordings of wonderful, currently active artists; that too is a long list!
Listening to several of your own piano recordings for Delos, I was taken not only with your playing but also with the beautiful Bösendorfer you’d chosen.
I fell in love with the sound of a Bösendorfer piano when I was in Vienna, and would walk over to the piano maker’s showroom on Bösendorferstrasse, where there were a few practice rooms with medium-sized pianos which could be rented by the hour. I was enchanted by the way the Bösendorfer could sing—i.e. the sound didn’t fall off as quickly after the hammer struck the string as it did in most pianos, and it even had a subtle swell, thanks to the construction of the piano.
Then many years later, in 1979, when I was living in Los Angeles, and performing and recording, I went to the one piano store in the Los Angeles area that had a Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand, planning to rent it for my Water Music of the Impressionists recording sessions. But I was so enchanted with its singing sound that instead of renting it, I made a long-term financial commitment to buy the piano! “Boesi” is still with me, and we still make music together just about every day.
Do you still perform?
No, I stopped performing in public once I took over the directorship of Delos. Amazingly, considering my late start post-polio, I enjoyed some forty years of performing and recording the sublime music I felt so privileged to “live within.” I also enjoyed sharing this music in other ways, especially in college and university workshops during my tours. But now I play just for myself, almost every day, and occasionally for a friend or two.
I understand you’ve recorded a few tracks for a new CD.
Yes! I’m a fan of composer Mark Abel’s music, of which Delos has now made four recordings. For the latest one, Time and Distance, I offered to play on the first two tracks: The Invocation with mezzo Janelle DeStefano, and Those Who Loved Medusa with soprano Hila Plitmann and percussionist Bruce Carver. I loved being back on the “other side” of the microphone, and participating in this remarkable album!
When you resumed concertizing early in your recovery, you were anxious about how your playing would be received but you were pleasantly surprised by the unanimously enthusiastic reviews. So my question, albeit probably an unanswerable one is, how much better do you think your performances could have been if you’d never contracted polio?
Wow, I have no idea! I guess I had to stop thinking about what might have been, and just focus on what I could possibly do (it turned out to be more than most people expected). That has been the firm goal, and I think I learned a lot in the painful process that I have been able to pass along to others, especially to students who wanted to improve their musical understanding and performance skills.
If I can linger for a moment on preconcert anxiety, it occurs to me that a contributing factor might be that you, like many musicians, are extremely self-critical.
Ha! You can say that again! I’m sure that’s one reason that many artists can’t be objective about their own work. It’s very interesting that you bring this up now because I’ve just come across a passage I’d had to discard from the book that addresses this very question. If you don’t mind I’d like to quote it in full:
“Can one ever be objective about one’s own work? I’m not at all sure of the answer to that question. Even with recordings, the very knowledge that it is one’s own work colors or distorts perception. The passage of time between finishing the work and evaluating it, though helpful, still doesn’t allow for true objectivity.
A case in point that always makes me laugh concerns one of the pieces on the Water Music of the Impressionists recording. From the time of the very first playback, I wished that I had been able to play that piece more the way I had envisioned it. A couple of years later, I was riding in a car with someone who had tuned into the local classical music radio station, which happened to be playing some pianist’s version of the piece. I was thinking to myself “Now that’s the way I wish I’d played it!”
At the end, the announcer gave the name of the piece; then added, “played by Carol Rosenberger.” I was stunned. It was the only time I had ever listened to that recording without knowing it was my own. If I had known from the beginning that it was my version, then fear and anxiety—mixed with my knowledge of the neuromuscular workarounds, and who knows what—might well have kept me from listening to it objectively.”
That’s a great story and you might like to know that the same thing once happened to Glenn Gould. Obviously you’d accomplished a lot if you could find yourself enthusing over the performance of that “mystery” pianist! Not to underestimate the importance of sheer will power, your eventual success was largely dependent on grueling physical and mental work, both at and away from the keyboard. One technique that helped was the intense bar-by-bar memorization you undertook to insure that you could start anywhere in the score if your infirmities temporarily got the better of you.
One thing I know for sure is that this careful preparation enabled me to go much farther than I otherwise could have gone. It was the intense bar-by-bar memorization that allowed me to take full advantage of the adrenaline time stretch (fight or flight) during performance. The adrenaline time stretch while playing material that I had practiced mentally in slow motion was what allowed me to find neuromuscular pathways that I never would have found otherwise! I’ve often thought that this process had something in common with extreme athletes and the way they learn to use the adrenaline time stretch to accomplish feats that might be considered impossible. After all, what I was doing was supposed to be impossible…
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