Elaine Lebar has been playing piano for almost 90 years.
Music has been a huge part of her life. She attended the high school of performing arts in NYC, received a BA from Brooklyn College majoring in music, and an MA in music education from the University of Missouri.
She taught, performed, composed, accompanied and judged throughout.
Now 92, she started to show signs of dementia ten years ago and in 2017, she moved to a care home.
Although she now has almost no short-term memory, she still remembers her music.
Her daughter Randi explains: ‘She began to show signs of dementia over 10 years ago and it slowly worsened.
‘Three years ago it became evident she needed constant supervision. We moved her into the memory care unit of Keystone Place – a lovely senior living community in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, close to my home in Sagamore, Massachusetts.
Randi and Elaine (Picture: Randi Lebar)
‘Although she can dress and feed herself, she has almost no short-term memory. Five minutes after playing piano, she will not remember that she played.
‘Thankfully, she does recognise me most of the time. Her mind is sharp despite the dementia, as you can see in the videos with the conversation.
‘Although music has always been important in her life, now it’s really the only thing that makes sense.’
To keep her love of music alive, Randi would take her mum every Sunday to perform for the residents living in the independent areas of her facility.
She adds: ‘I began recording these impromptu concerts, wanting to preserve these memories for the inevitable time when she is no longer around.
‘I shared these videos on my FB page and was always amazed when they had been seen by more than 100 people.’
Randi meeting her mum through a window (Picture: Randi Lebar)
Sadly, Randi has not been able to visit her mum much because of the pandemic, but she had many videos of her saved and has been sharing the online.
Randi went on to post her videos of her mum on TikTok and they have been watched my millions, with people amazed by her skill.
She said: ‘She continued to play piano for the memory care residents, and occasionally I would hear her via Skype.
‘I could only visit through the window. The first time I was allowed to visit with her in person at the piano was 18 Sept 2020.
‘As she struggled through Clair de Lune – my favourite – I realized how much she (and I) had lost in the preceding six months.
‘The US was at the height of its presidential campaign, with the ridiculous politicisation of masks, and it struck me that the people talking about their “personal freedom” had no understanding of the precious and irreplaceable time that they were taking from me and all the other relatives of the elderly.
‘I posted the initial video as a silent rant – I had no desire to enter the vituperative mask debate.
‘I also wanted to raise awareness of dementia, the effect of music, and the lack of understanding about the magic of the brain.’
To start with, the videos were watched by just a few people but soon started getting hundreds of thousands of views.
Randi said: ‘The initial video received little attention. Then, her building went back into lockdown because of a positive Covid test in an employee, and I posted the Maple Leaf Rag video.
‘In my little world, it went viral – hundreds of thousands of views. I was amazed. I told my mother about it when I visited the next week and “interviewed her” before she played The Entertainer; that video went more viral. I was receiving requests for specific music.
‘And ultimately I posted the third movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Then I understood what viral meant. And here we are.’
The video shows Elaine saying ‘I don’t know that one’ before playing the Beethoven piece almost perfectly, and it has been viewed over six million times.
Randi has been amazed by the response but explaining it to Elaine has been difficult, particularly with the coronavirus restrictions still in place.
She said: ‘I have spoken to my mother only once since I started sharing her videos on TikTok.
‘After explaining the site as clearly as I could, her response to the fact that hundreds of thousands of people were watching her videos was, “They must have too much time on their hands. They need something better to do.” Sadly, I was not recording at that time!’
She hopes that her mum can keep playing for as long as possible but added that she hopes someday, they might be able to get a better instrument for her to enjoy.
She said: ‘One final thing: because we moved her rather abruptly into memory care, we were unable to bring her Steinway grand piano along with her.
‘If someone wants to donate a grand piano in decent shape to Keystone Place, it will be well-loved and played often.’
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