The Piano Lady
One of the first things you notice when you walk into Joyce Fessenden’s home is the piles of sheet music and songbooks giving testament to a vast repertoire of tunes. At 81, Fessenden keeps herself young playing lively tunes on the piano. “If I’m considered young, it’s the music that does it.” She is old enough to remember when the land adjacent to the Post Office in Augusta featured a small pond, and Western Avenue was lined with stately homes. She is young enough to laugh and play a zestful, danceable rhythm on the piano.
Seventy years ago, Fessenden was an only child, with working parents, being taken care of by a grandmother. To entertain herself she discovered—the piano. “I loved music,” she says, “I remember even now, loving it and working with it, and thinking this is woooooonderful!” She remembers her piano teacher, Marian McVea as a wonderful teacher, who travelled from Fairfield to Augusta once a week to give her lessons
Fessenden spends much of her time accompanying singers. She says being in the background doesn’t bother her as long as there is music involved. “If somebody says “piano,” the only thing I say is ‘where and when?’ and I’m there.” Throughout her musical career, Fessenden has played accompaniment for high school musicals, glee clubs, Gilbert and Sullivan productions and a long list of central Maine churches.
An active member of the Cecilia Club, which honored her as Musician of the Year in 1998, many of her favorite tunes are popular tunes are from the 1920’s and 1930’s. Ask which ones are her favorites, and she’ll ask if you’ve got a week, and then start reeling off titles; “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “I’ll Be Down to Get You in a Taxi, Honey (You’d Better Be Ready By Half Past Eight.)”
Four or five days a week, Fessenden makes the rounds of nursing homes and Alzheimers care centers, and sometimes plays for a band of “experienced” musicians calling themselves the “Olde Tyme Music Makers.” Some of the people she plays for can’t remember recent events, she says, but they can sing songs they learned 40, 50, or 60 years ago. She says part of what keeps her playing is the fact that she feels wanted and needed. She plays at least once a day, and sometimes twice a day, appreciating the opportunity to share her music with others. While some eighty-year-olds might be content to stay in, that’s not Fessenden’s style. “Sit around? No, I want to do something.”
Other seniors who want to become involved in the arts will likely find something of interest in one of the seventeen Senior College programs in Maine, which provide a variety of enrichment courses for seniors, including classes in writing, visual arts, and music. More information is available at the Maine Senior College Network website, www.maineseniorcollege.org, or call 207/780-4128.