The Arizona Daily Star, April 2018: "Arthritis robbed 'Sonata' author of joy playing the piano, but writing brought it back"
Like many people, Andrea Avery grew up with a piano in her home. Intrigued by the instrument sitting in her living room, she started taking lessons at age 7 and soon fell in love with it.
But by age 12, she was diagnosed with something that would change the way she played piano for the rest of her life: rheumatoid arthritis.
Avery, now a high school English teacher in Phoenix, wrote about her experiences with arthritis and her love for piano in her recent memoir “Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano.”
Last month, she took her stories as a writer and pianist to the stage when she took part in two talks at the Tucson Festival of Books. She was part of a panel of memoir authors, and also spoke in a presentation alongside University of Arizona Arthritis Center Director Dr. C. Kent Kwoh about her book. ...
Phoenix Magazine, November 2017
Reviewing Sonata in the November 2017 issue of Phoenix Magazine, Amanda Kippert says, " Brutally hilarious, raw and inspiring, Avery explains what it’s like to, as she describes it, get old before growing up."
All Things Book, September 2017
Julia Park Tracy of All Things Book writes, "The narrative leaves me breathless, because it is exquisitely crafted; I am in the moment with her of feeling the burning in her joints, of trying to play an octave when her fingers won’t stretch so far. She has managed, in every line, to grasp that elusive brilliance that is creating art, creating story. It’s a beautiful, funny, lovely memoir, and I urge you to read it." Click below to read the full review!
KBACH classical arts community, "Book Notes" Selection for May 2017
Local debut author Andrea Avery shares her memoir that weaves chronic illness and classical music into a raw, inspiring tale of grace and determination.
Andrea, already a promising and ambitious classical pianist at twelve, was diagnosed with a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis that threatened not just her musical aspirations but her ability to live a normal life. As Andrea navigates the pain and frustration of coping with RA alongside the usual travails of puberty, college, sex, and just growing-up, she turns to music—specifically Franz Schubert's sonata in B-flat, and the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein—for strength and inspiration. The heartbreaking story of this mysterious sonata—Schubert's last, and his most elusive and haunting—is the soundtrack of Andrea's story.
In 1989, at the age of 12, Avery was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. She was also a promising pianist. This excellent memoir illuminates both elements of her life with equal dignity and insight. Readers will gladly follow along as the author, now an English teacher in Phoenix, Ariz., recounts a detailed description of her symptoms, treatments, and the numerous medical procedures she endured. The memoir is also a love story to playing the piano, which Avery began when she was seven years old. The author notes she had a “few years’ grace” before the disease severely interfered with her playing. Her battle was both physical and psychological. After failing a piano exam, Avery explains, “I was fine with having arthritis myself, but for the first time I had infected the music. Now it was arthritic, too.” Avery delves into how her disease complicated the normal chaotic process of growing up, dating, sex, and college. She also deftly narrates the remarkable stories of Paul Wittgenstein, a one-armed pianist, and Franz Schubert, who composed his sonata in B-flat while dying from syphilis, revealing how she used these men’s stories and music as sources of inspiration. Her story offers inspiration, and education on building a beautiful and meaningful life even when what you love most slips away.
What if losing a physical ability meant you would no longer be able to share your most treasured talent? Andrea Avery faces this challenge in “Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano.” As a 12-year-old, the promising pianist’s hands showed signs of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Through the years, the disease waxed and waned, creating permanent damage in her joints. She still managed to hold on to the music she loved dearly.
Avery arranges her memoir in movements, like her favorite Schubert sonata. Avery also explores how RA shaped her relationships and daily life, creating challenges both physical and psychological. Readers will be rooting for Avery as she builds a life she can cherish regardless of her symptoms.
I am not a pianist, but this remarkable book resonated with me in other ways.
Twelve-year-old Andrea Avery was an enthusiastic piano student in love with music when she was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in 1989. As her constantly-morphing physical condition began to pose immense challenges to her “activities of daily living,” she nevertheless resolved to continue her musical training with whatever adjustments were necessary.
In the early 1950s, my 30-year-old athletic father was also diagnosed with RA. I came along several years later and thus never knew him when he wasn’t limping, unable to climb stairs, or accommodating severely deformed hands and feet. My parents largely sheltered me from the worst of his condition, but there was no escaping the reality of life with a chronically-ill head of household, even while he steadfastly pursued his legal career until retiring in his 40s by necessity.
His functionality in the world was only possible thanks to massive daily doses of cortisone. That miracle drug kept him reasonably mobile until he was unable to walk at all, but its long-term use gradually destroyed his other vital organs, leading to his death at age 55, shortly before my college graduation.
Therefore, Avery’s graphic descriptions of the effects of RA and her determination to maintain an active lifestyle—albeit with the help of drugs and treatments my father never lived to experience himself—were both eloquent and sadly revelatory to me. RA may not be a “terminal” disease per se, but the disease’s cumulative impact on its victims’ lives is visceral and undeniable.
Before her diagnosis, Avery’s passion for the piano in general and for one composition in particular was absolute: her musical “soundtrack,” so to speak, was Franz Schubert’s final Sonata in B-flat, D 960. As she grew older and was forced to drastically rearrange her life in deference to her disability, she also took strength in the legends of one-armed Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who continued to perform pieces specially commissioned for his left hand; of Schubert himself who created Avery’s beloved sonata while suffering from syphilis; and of 20th-century American piano virtuoso Byron Janis, who continued his international career while coping with his own crippling RA.
Avery movingly recalls her illness’s challenges while navigating through the normal life passages of puberty, college, and relationships. Her physical setbacks along the way, including incapacitating breakdowns and numerous reparative surgeries, are depicted unflinchingly, in the most candid descriptions of the ravages of RA I hope ever to read. But just as my father relied on the need to support his family to carry him through, so Andrea Avery leaned on music in her darkest times.
Might she have become a famous concert pianist if not for her disease? Hard to say. She reflects at one point: “In all likelihood, I would not have been good enough…But the cruel synchrony, to be gifted with music and arthritis simultaneously, is at times almost unbearable…If I failed, at least it would have been on my own terms. I know I am a better musician than my body will let me be.”
Today, Andrea Avery is a high school English teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, and still playing piano. In the book’s final pages, she summarizes: “If I was going to have a life with arthritis in it, I am so glad I have had the piano as my companion. Piano has given me something to reach for with my arthritic hand, some reason not to give up on my fingers…Music has made my arthritic life better. Perhaps I am a better musician than I was or would have been—not despite my arthritis, but because of it. Maybe it takes scars to play Schubert and Chopin correctly.”
By so eloquently sharing her own “scars,” Andrea Avery enriches us all.
Scuffed Slippers and Wormy Books
Sonata is a beautifully written, unflinching look at how a pianist has fought and accommodated her disease, even as it tried to close off her instrument. This is not Inspiration Lit. Avery doesn't triumph over adversity to nab a Juilliard scholarship, recording contract, and massive acclaim as a concert pianist. She allows us to see her anger, her loss at not being given a fair shake to see where her talent might take her before RA decided that she wasn't allowed to know if her joints would reliably function. That some days are good, some days are bad, and some days are awful. How being an adult with a chronic illness and disability impacted her relationships, romantic and otherwise. Mixed into Avery's story are the stories of Franz Schubert, a gifted composer ahead of his time who wrote the B-flat sonata that calls to her, and Paul Wittgenstein, a concert pianist who lost an arm in WWI.
Avery has a very nice writing style. Straightforward but also illustrative without getting ornate. Someday, I hope she writes about being an English teacher, too, since she gives us a small glimpse into her life as an instructor and it sounds like she can give us some stories there, too.