Naomi Kliman sat regally at the piano, hands poised. She adjusted her tiny five-foot frame on the piano seat, and with a nod toward her audience members - all five of them - she started to play.
Her hands flew across the keys as she cycled through a repertoire of classical pieces, then moved on to ragtime, a waltz, a Hungarian dance, some Russian songs. The 82-year-old played with vigor and passion and also by memory, a remarkable feat considering that Kliman, a music educator who taught piano for nearly 65 years, has Alzheimer’s disease.
These days, there isn’t much Kliman can remember about the last 50 years. She’s forgotten that she lived in Milton for most of her life, and that she had more than 1,000 piano students over the course of a career, which she pursued until she turned 80. (When asked, she says she had 100.) By the time her family moved her - and her beloved Baldwin - to an assisted living facility a little over a year ago, she didn’t recognize the piano, though she’d played it every day of her adult life.
But she has not forgotten the music: not the notes, not the strong, confident way her hands arc over the keys, not her zeal for what she’s playing or for playing before an audience. “She is a show woman,’’ said her son Burt, a Newton lawyer. “She’d love to play all day.’’
Naomi Kliman grew up in Dorchester, the daughter of Jewish immigrants. A talented pianist, she graduated in 1950 from the New England Conservatory of Music with a bachelor’s degree in piano performance, and began teaching piano when she was 16. Though it was unusual for women to have careers at the time, Kliman always worked as a musician. She taught music at a summer camp, gave private lessons, and in her 60s began to work in the Jewish community, too, accompanying cantors and choral groups, and developing music appreciation programs for seniors.
“She was an absolute dynamo. She was a spark plug. She had so much energy,’’ said Rabbi Mark Sokoll, president of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston. “She was one of those people always singing, always full of spirit, and full of music.’’
Kliman kept teaching as long as she could, until her son started getting calls from parents concerned that she was teaching the same piece over and over again.
Now she lives in a unit for people with dementia in NewBridge on the Charles, an assisted living facility in Dedham. She is a resident celebrity: “Naomi’’ shows up often on the activities schedule, along with “Afternoon Stroll’’ or “Puzzles.’’ Once, when a hired entertainer didn’t show up, Kliman was summoned and stepped in.
The piano is in a common area and she always wants to play it. “She is driven,’’ her son said. If he brings her over to his house, she goes straight to the piano and will not stop playing; he has to gently separate her from the instrument when it’s time for dinner. One time she had a cut on her finger but kept playing anyway, leaving little red smudges of blood on the keys.
“Nothing gets in the way of her playing,’’ he said.
This is sometimes a problem at NewBridge on the Charles, where she has access to the piano only during specific hours; the staff keeps it locked at other times so she won’t disturb residents or play over other entertainers. Sometimes she gets stuck in a loop on a music phrase, or reverts to pieces she enjoyed when she was young, such as her favorite frailach, a Jewish wedding dance.
“She just defaults to it, and it drives people crazy,’’ Burt Kliman said. “She believes that music brings happiness. Which it does. Just not incessantly.’’
The general view of people with Alzheimer’s disease is that they don’t know who they are and remember nothing about their past, according to John Zeisel, the president of Woburn-based Hearthstone Alzheimer Care, which runs six residences in Massachusetts and New York for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. He is the cofounder of Artists for Alzheimer’s, or ARTZ, a nonprofit organization that develops cultural experiences for people with the disease.
Zeisel believes musicians like Kliman show that this stereotype is false. He said it’s not unusual for people with the disease to turn to activities that used to give them pleasure and compulsively repeat them: It reminds them of who they are, he said.
He’s seen this happen with another musician named Elaine Leighton, an 80-year-old jazz drummer who toured with Billie Holiday in Europe during the 1950s. She played drums until her late 30s and didn’t touch them again until she was diagnosed with dementia and moved to one of Zeisel’s Hearthstone facilities in Palisades, N.Y. Though she hadn’t played drums in 40 years, a nurse interested in music encouraged her to try again.
“She sat down like she’d never been away from it,’’ her daughter, Joanne Loesner said in a telephone interview. “I saw this transformation take place. I saw her soul come to life. I saw the spirit and sparkle of a 27-year-old musician. It put her back in touch with her true self.’’
Much like Kliman, she didn’t want to stop playing. “We could not get her off the drums. She would drum day and night,’’ said Zeisel.
He believes there is a biochemical reason for this. “When you do things that are meaningful to you or give you pleasure, the brain releases neurotransmitters, and you get addicted to them; you want to keep that high going,’’ he said. For musicians, playing music is euphoric because it connects them to their true identities.
“People with dementia are so in need of meaning in their lives that the minute they get in touch with those skills, they want it over and over. It’s like a drug,’’ he said. “At a deep level, [Kliman] knows that when she plays she is seen as a pianist and if she stops playing she’ll be seen as a sick person.’’
A cabinet in Kliman’s small apartment is filled with sheet music, which she sifts through every night, just as she did years ago when she prepared her musical programs. One recent Sunday afternoon, an aide unlocked the piano for Kliman.
She began to play for a handful of residents, unperturbed that they weren’t particularly attentive. A man was sleeping on a sofa. A woman looked at a newspaper. Another became agitated. “We don’t want this here,’’ she said loudly.
But Kliman was happy, her wide smile reflected back at her on the polished black piano. Then it happened again: She got stuck in a loop, repeating a coda for the fourth time.
“It’s the same thing. The same thing,’’ a resident said.
Marie Petit-Frere,the activities assistant, tried to persuade Kliman to move on. “Can we have another?’’ she asked Kliman. “ ‘Hava Nagila’? Give us that one.’’
Kliman gave her the wedding frailach - three times - until Petit-Frere sat beside her and applauded conspicuously. “Thank you!’’ she said, bringing the concert to a close.
Kliman stood up, straightened her skirt, and took a few steps toward the sofa. Then, gazing toward the back of the house, she took a small bow.