September honors the piano in all its shapes, sizes, and models. The upright residing in our home has earned recognition for giving my three children an appreciation for music, fine motor skills, and an edge with math. Our instrument became a television celebrity while filming a Heart Association Public Service Announcement (PSA). While setting up for filming, the television reporter asked me if I played the piano. I told her our ivory and ebony keyboard became a critical tool in my rehabilitation process by helping to simulate my neurons and generate new synapses.
Before my stroke, I played a piano accordion. This instrument requires playing treble clef music on a small keyboard and bass clef music by pressing the buttons. Like the piano, you use two hands simultaneously. Yet, in 2001, my ability to do two tasks at the same time ceased. A large blood clot passed through my heart, into my blood stream, up into my cerebellum, and burst into small pieces within my brain. These tiny clots effected my sight, short-term memory, mathematical ability, the behavioral center of the brain, and the left side of my body, just to name the major traumas.
Balance, speech, and cognitive therapy helped me, but I wanted new connections to develop in my brain to enable me to expand my recovery. My dormant neurons and synapses required stimulation. I valued reading and playing music, which led me to consider playing my accordion again. But my Italian handcrafted instrument weighed about 30 pounds, and its bulk was difficult to manage in my altered state. Besides, I could only remember how to play the right hand. I approached Susan Diaz, my children’s piano teacher. I explained to her my brain stimulation project. She was enthusiastic about using music to heal, and happy to work with me.
The fact that I remembered how to read notes made my teacher's task easier. She taught me to watch the movement of the notes on the staff, which helped me bridge from one instrument to another.
Next, came the months of practicing the basics. Reading the music was easy. My ability to focus was limited. I had to practice for short periods. My left hand needed much work and the repetition of the same few measures was a challenge. Susan had me do exercises in short sets. I had to remember I was starting from scratch.
It didn’t take long before my muscles remembered how to work with my brain. My hands became nimble and continued to stretch out. Practicing scales used my brain, eyes, and hands. My new learning stimulated new areas of my brain. After practicing chords, scales, and eventually left hand bass clef exercises, I started playing duets with my daughter. When she and I played together, I played the bass clef part each time with both right and left hands.
The 'ebony and ivory' journey offered victories and frustrations. It led me to not only playing the piano, but three years later, I accompanied my music teacher at a recital with my accordion. Being a part of a recital performance gave me confidence to start writing again, volunteering, and accepting invitations to speak on recognizing signs of stroke. I even spoke about my experience playing the piano.
Not every stroke patient ends up with the same results when trying to stimulate their brain. I reached out to music. Scientists and medical professionals are documenting how an instrument or involvement in music can assist brain injury, Post Traumatic Stress Disease (PTSD), and stroke patients.
So, during the month of September make sure to indulge your brain and celebrate the piano.
Take out some music out. Spend some times on the ivory and ebony keys. Remember, it is never to late to learn something new!
Patricia Coffey is a writer who is currently working on a four book series. She also writes a blog, Vigilant Silver Fox, and experiments with poetry. She volunteers with the Intermountain Medical Center, and she currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.