Pain and Piano: The Story of Andrea Avery

Jun 30, 2017

Through a musical lens, author Andrea Avery tells a story of confronting the overwhelming obstacles of chronic illness in pursuit of a career as a pianist in "Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano." 

Andrea Avery does not claim that she definitely would have been a great pianist had rheumatoid arthritis not taken hold of her joints when she was twelve. "Listen," she writes in her new book, Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano, "I know. Millions of kids take piano lessons, and very few of them become concert pianists. I understand the rarity and odds better than most, I assure you."

Nonetheless, if it had it been up to her, a concert pianist is precisely what she would have been.

Where most kids have to be prodded and bribed to practice their instruments, Avery couldn't walk past a piano without plopping down on the bench and playing it. It was a need, and she practiced ferociously, devouring everything she could get her hands on, from Mozart to Barry Manilow. Piano was her everything.

Then her body took her in another direction. Rheumatoid arthritis (R.A.), like multiple sclerosis or lupus, is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes the body to misread its own instructions and to attack itself. It has no cure, and cruelly, especially for a budding pianist determined to be the best, it takes aim at the joints. 

However, soon after her diagnosis, at a conference for children with R.A. in Providence, R.I., she heard Franz Schubert's Piano Sonata in B-flat major, D 960. At the time she didn't know what it was called. She didn't know it would be a companion through her journey with R.A., running parallel to her many surgeries and setbacks.

She didn't know its own sad history, that it was Schubert's last work for piano, and that he was severely ill and in the final months of his short life when he wrote it. She didn't know that for decades after first hearing it she would practice it hour after hour, painfully trying to force her hands to comply with what she wanted them to do. She didn't know that after setting aside her dreams of playing piano she would return to it, to her beloved Schubert, just to keep playing, even for a little bit.

What she knew is that the piece stirred her to the core, and she had to play it. Right there, right then.

Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano is a powerful and emotional read. I'm tempted to say it's an inspiring read, but, after having chatted with Andrea, I know that "inspiration" isn't the point of the book. More accurately, it is an encouraging read.

"Write the book you want to read. I wrote the book that I thought would console me when I was 17." Sonata is, like so much classical music, written with a multi-movement form, following a distinct pattern: joyful, traumatic, resurgent, triumphant. It isn't happily ever after, but it isn't a tragedy either. It's a story of a life, imbued with the calm and enlightened peace and acceptance of those who have been through an ordeal and come to the other side.

Learn more about Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano

Read an excerpt from the book, via The Washington Post.

Credit Pegasus Books