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Transcript for the Piece Audio version of At 99 Years Old, A Musical Prodigy Rediscovers her Piano Passion

Ruth Antine began piano lessons when she was 7 years old, and has hardly missed a day since. Now, 92 years later, she tells Emily Friedman the story of her days as a world-class concert pianist, and how she keeps up her skills after so many years.


Ruth Antine wakes up around 3 in the morning. She gets dressed, hooks her music bag on her walker, and heads downstairs. There’s a room in her retirement home that has a tv, some chairs and a piano. And by no later than 5am, she’s sitting at the piano, ready to begin.

(La Berceuse starts)

Ruth: Here's some of my audience. Shall we wait till they come on.

Three other residents stream into the room as the morning goes on. Breakfast just finished, so this is when the concert usually begins.

Ruth: Hi girls.

Girls: Hi

Ruth: They all have their favorite pieces, see? I'm not so good anymore. I do the best I can!

(La Berceuse begins again, continues)

Ruth: I started...I was a little over 7...I remember the exact day. Before I knew it I was giving concerts. I don't remember even being nervous about it. but I thought everybody was bored! I just looked, everybody sitting there so quiet and they just look so bored!

Everybody knew that I played the piano and they asked me to play, I played, that's all.

((end of La Bercuse //bravos!! clap claps))

Antine was a child prodigy. She didn’t do regular kid things, like play in the street in her Brooklyn neighborhood, or go grocery shopping with her mother, because she was always practicing.

Ruth: Somebody wanted me to go on tour. And my teacher said ‘she should not do that.’ It wont be good in the long run good to go on tour now, show off. I shouldn’t make a big thing of being young. The idea is to know how to play well.

Instead of touring, she stayed in school and performed all over New York City. By her twenties, she was one of the first women to receive a Masters in conducting from Yale. She helped write books on music theory, music therapy and all the while performed. Hundreds of performances, thousands of songs.

Ruth: I don't know how many, many things I played. Enough to play concerts all over the world. Almost anything that anybody would want.

((music shift----darker))

Elyse: My name is Elyse Vinitsky, and I have an incredibly special aunt, Ruth Vinitsky Antine. Aunt Ruth, do you remember anything about the accident?

Ruth: No, I don't. I just know I forgot everything.

Two years ago, Antine had a stroke that wiped out almost all of her repertoire. There were piles and piles of sheet music in her mind, and the notes had somehow slid off the page. When you ask about it, she won’t really say how hard it was to see her whole lifetime of knowledge disappear. She says it just means she needs to practice more.

Ruth: Even now, there's an early sonata of Bethoven, la pathetique...I don't know when I'll have it. I can't play it now. I can't get this part, i haven't go that part.

She had had a stroke before, 30 years ago…after which she was told she’d never play piano again. But she did. Now, two years after her more recent stroke, she’s relearned more than 2 hours of music. She plays every morning, and says, in some ways, she’s better than she ever was.

Ruth: Every time i play it's a real experience to me, and it should be to others as well. And I think that, somehow, that communicates.

She performs every morning, for anyone who wants to listen. It’s an older crowd, she says, and though she introduces each song with a story and a little banter, it’s pretty common to see people nodding off.

Ruth: A lot of people come just to hear me play. Sometimes they'll applaud me, and then afterward they will fall asleep. I told them, if they don't fall asleep, they get their money back, so that really means it's ok to fall asleep.

Ruth’s niece Elyse says after the stroke, Aunt Ruth doesn’t get all the notes right. But, she says, that’s not what it’s about anymore.

Elyse: Do you remember the story about Leopold Godowsky? And a woman came up to him after a concert and said....how can you play the piano with such small hands?

Ruth: And he said, 'what makes you think we play with our hands?' haha.

((end of La Bercuse))

Ruth says even after 92 years, there’s always something to learn, something to practice, and if you’re lucky, there’s always someone to hear you play.

I’m Emily Friedman.