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After a stroke, I decided to learn piano. It felt like falling in love

This First Person column is written by Calgary resident Sandra Low. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

My heart was racing and I was nervous but excited at the same time. My body was vibrating and all my senses were heightened. 

The last time I had felt this way was when I was a teenager with school girl crushes. So was I in love? Was I developing a crush on my male piano teacher, almost 30 years my junior? 

But no. That wasn’t it.

Let me back up. I suffered a stroke in March 2013, then mostly recovered and realized I had been incredibly lucky. I pledged not to waste my good fortune, but to follow my dreams no matter what.

Six months after the stroke, even before I went back to work, I enrolled in piano lessons.

  • LISTEN | Sandra Low realized she couldn’t wait any longer to follow her dreams following a stroke 

Daybreak Alberta5:20First Person: Sandra Low

Some people believe students can only learn music well when they’re young. Financial problems meant I never had that chance as a child. But I had a dream, a passion and the conviction, and these beliefs did not deter 52-year-old me.

I learned slowly with my first teacher, pushing through the lingering memory deficits and fatigue from the stroke. Then after two years, I started with a man in his 20s. He seemed stern and austere. At our first lesson, he asked me how my previous teacher taught. I described how she would play each new song for me first and then help me figure it out.

“I won’t be doing that,” he said. “I expect you to learn the notes yourself and when I give you homework to practice, I expect you to practice. If I find that you are not practicing, I will ask the administration staff to transfer you to another teacher.”

So I really practiced.

We plodded along for three months. At our last lesson before Christmas, he was uncharacteristically harsh — he criticized my poor form and said I played with wrong rhythm and tone.

An upright piano with a pile of music books on top of it.
Sandra Low bought a piano from her second music teacher when he was moving from the city. Now it sits in a prominent place near her kitchen and gets played regularly. (Sandra Low)

I went home in a state of shock. 

But this was my dream. I wasn’t going to give up without a fight. 

When I saw him in January, I played the same song again and then, staring straight ahead, in a rush said, “I practiced this piece about 500 times and I had thought about quitting after our last lesson but I am not going to.” 

There was a pause. Then, gently, he said he could see I had put the effort in.

From that moment, his attitude and teaching changed. He was congenial, even warm. He drew on metaphors to explain difficult concepts. He took care to nurture my creativity, teaching me to trust my intuition and interpret the music. As long as I could explain my “intention” playing the piece and convey it with conviction, he was satisfied. 

I was amazed and the world of music came alive. And that tingly feeling that I got previously from crushes? That was me falling deeply in love with music through him. 

I’m now in my ninth year studying classical piano with my fifth piano teacher. I plan to do my Level 6 piano exam in February 2024 and to write the Level 8 music theory exam soon after. 

Piano came to me at a time when life was not easy.– Sandra Low

Piano came to me at a time when life was not easy. Vertigo and fatigue from the stroke restricted my movement. I was unsteady when I walked and the memory deficits and the concentration lapses were even worse. 

My self-esteem was low. I doubted myself, catastrophized and felt depressed.

Piano changed me. As I learned to really make the music my own, I went from passive listener to active participant. I was empowered to express myself and the power of creativity in action made me fall unexpectedly and deeply in love.

That passion spilled over into all parts of my life, and it helped me recover from the stroke, too. 

The act of learning music pulled me through that angst-ridden recovery phase. It kept my mind occupied, pulling it out of the negative thinking. And when I started achieving that dream of playing piano, I started believing in myself again. 

I even created something new — a national peer-to-peer support community for adult music learners — to support other older adults pushing past the bias to learn, and to find a peer group of people who could understand the transformation I lived through.

There’s a quote attributed to Confucious that inspires me. He said, “We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.” 

My stroke taught me life is short. But music was there for me when I opened the door to begin living again, and through piano, I’m truly living my best second life.

Telling your story

As part of our ongoing partnership with the Calgary Public Library, CBC Calgary is running in-person writing workshops to support community members telling their own stories. Read more from this workshop was held at the Nicholls Family Library:

Check out our workshops and sign up for the waiting list.

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