She's a genius when commanding the grand piano, but 88-year-old Mayo Clinic volunteer, Anne Monte, of Scottsdale, Ariz., confesses her nagging fear: "People think it's a player piano. I'm so short, they can't see me back there!"
Her fears are unfounded --if you ask any of the Mayo patients and visitors who stop in their tracks to inhale the sight of the petite, white-haired lady seated at the piano bench who shocks them with her vitality and vigorous pounding of the keys. On Mondays, Anne's turn at the piano at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, she is surrounded by "groupies" -- smiling patient and visitor fans who express disbelief when they learn of her age and spot her wheel chair nearby.
Because polio rendered her almost immobile at age 13 and continues to sap her mobility, Anne arrives at the Mayo piano in a wheel chair, escorted by her husband and best friend of 62 years, Michael. Never dreaming she'd escape from the confinement of her iron lung at a New York hospital where she grew up, she still willed herself to survive. She was dubbed the "miracle child" by her beloved father who, as a guitarist, played with Irving Berlin during World War I. Convinced that Anne had talent, he propped her up at the piano at a young age.
"My dad believed in me so much. He would sit with me and rub my stiff fingers, helping strengthen them to play the piano," recalls Anne. "He was my whole world. He's in heaven now, teaching music."
Anne honed her artistic talent on her father's Steinway piano, now 108 years old, which she inherited. Her formal training took place at Julliard in New York City. The most important advice she gleaned from her favorite teacher and mentor was to hit the keys with her finger tips. "That's where you get music," he counseled her. She heeds that advice to this day.
After graduating in 1945 with a master's degree in concert piano, she suffered a blow. Unbeknownst to her, both her Julliard teacher and her father had conspired to withhold the fact that she would never be invited to play in the concert world -- her dream. Anne simply didn't have enough strength in her left hand to be accepted. "They didn't tell me while I was in school," says Anne. "They didn't want to crush my spirit."
With her characteristic optimism, Anne got over it and embraced the prospect of teaching piano to children, a decision she never regrets. Along the way, she met Michael Monte at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, who was a bass opera singer and performed in comedy and variety shows.
Her brother, Bill Ristuccia, also a gifted piano player who chose jazz as his passion, admits to picking up his foundation in classical music from Anne. Bill went on to establish the volunteer program that features pianists at Mayo in Arizona.
Although unable to live out her dream of becoming a concert pianist, Anne now is totally comfortable with her decision to teach kids. "Once I started with the kids, I loved it," she says. “Every student of mine is teaching music somewhere today."
Despite being sidelined by three operations as the result of the polio and osteoporosis (Anne laments that she was once 5 feet, 3 inches tall and now must admit to stretching to make 5 feet), she's never down for long. "I don't have time for arthritis!" she confirms. She strives to never miss her Monday morning gig at the piano at Mayo.
So does keeping her eye and mind on the skill of piano playing keep her mind sharp, like the doctors recommend? "Oh, absolutely," says Anne, a response echoed by her husband and everyone who knows her. "And the good thing is, you never have to retire when you have the 88 keys."
Anne winks and announces, "I have been playing here at Mayo for 12 years. And I hope to be here until God takes me."
Lynn Closway is a Public Affairs Representative at Mayo Clinic.