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December 1, 2019Jason Emerson - Managing Editor, International Musician
In the opening pages of her new lyrical memoir, like falling through a cloud, renowned flutist Eugenia Zukerman writes of those everyday things called words:
when I fail to find them.
I know they’re hiding
somewhere in the dark realms of my cerebellum,
floating around, mocking, sneering,
Catch me! Remember me! Speak me!
As Zukerman shouts her frustration, the reader begins to understand the slipperiness of Alzheimer’s, and can only wonder at how those suffering its effects learn to cope. “It’s scary to be someone going into the subway and suddenly realize that I don’t know where I am,” she says of the starker, more frightening aspects of the disease. But her Alzheimer’s diagnosis does not define her, as Zukerman makes perfectly clear in her new book, which was released in November to coincide with national Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.
“I hope readers will understand that [an Alzheimer’s diagnosis] is an incredibly complex situation,” says Zukerman, a 45-year member of Local 802 (New York City). “When suddenly one day you go from knowing something’s a little off to going to a hospital and being tested for all these things and coming away thinking, ‘Oh, what comes next?’ I think it’s the ‘what comes next’ that it’s so important to think about, but not dwell on.”
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. Symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks. Alzheimer’s has no current cure, but treatments for symptoms are available and research continues.
Zukerman, now 75, has had a long and successful career as not only a musician but also an author, journalist, and music director. At age 10 she started playing flute after hearing her first symphony on a school trip. She studied English at Barnard College before transferring to the Juilliard School to study music. She graduated in 1966 and two years later married the famous violinist Pinchas Zukerman, also a Local 802 member. The couple, who later divorced, had two daughters together, opera singer Arianna Zukerman and blues/folk musician Natalia Zukerman, who is a member of Local 1000 (nongeographic).
In 1971, Zukerman won the Young Concert Artists Award and made her formal New York debut to rave reviews. She was soon engaged to perform in concerts and recitals all over the world, and has been a sought-after orchestral soloist, chamber musician, and recitalist ever since, typically giving more than 30 performances per year. She was also the artistic director of the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival in Colorado for 13 years and the arts correspondent on CBS Sunday Morning for more than 25 years, and is the author of two novels, two works of nonfiction, and numerous screenplays, articles, and book reviews.
Zukerman admits that she is hyper-achieving and constantly busy. So when, at age 72, she started to forget things, she did not think it was such a big deal. After all, her mother lived to be a spry 103 years of age. But then, the forgetfulness grew to the point where her daughters and her husband (Richard Novik) started to notice and become concerned, and her sister, a doctor, reminded her that six of their mother’s siblings suffered cognitive decline and died in their 70s. Zukerman then agreed to undergo a neuro-psych exam and an MRI, and the results confirmed she had stage 1 Alzheimer’s.
Zukerman says she remembers coming home from the hospital that day, sitting at her desk, and just starting to write. “Something came out of me that was not expected—and that was the book. It feels like it was a gift to me, and for that reason I hope people come out of it knowing that a death sentence doesn’t have to be a death sentence.”
Her memoir, like falling through a cloud, takes the reader on a journey from her initial bouts of forgetfulness, to her testing and diagnosis, her fear and vulnerability, her therapy and coping strategies, and finally to her acceptance of her situation. The book is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, courageous and filled with fear and doubt—but it is suffused with strength and hope, and the idea that music is a saving grace.
“Music has always been at the center of me,” she says. “It’s always been something I have needed to do, something I have loved to do.” And, despite her Alzheimer’s, Zukerman continues to perform as a flute soloist and continues to be a music director. In fact, many of the poems in the book either focus on or relate to the influence of music in her life. In one poem she writes about her “deep and devoted desire to / create luscious sounds and shapely phrases / by blowing across a golden mouthpiece” because “sculpting sound with air / is like writing on the wind.”
About midway through the book, Zukerman calls music and playing her flute her “antidote to fear”—she also ruminates on how she has played Debussy’s Syrinx on her flute nearly every day since she was 10 years old (22,995 times) and so, when a day comes when she forgets the song just for a moment, it terrifies her “because / I don’t just play this piece, I feel it, I dance it in my head / and to forget one note fills me with a dark and ominous dread.”
But whatever her fears, Zukerman’s memoir shows her continually fighting back and refusing to surrender. As she writes in the poem “the ephemeral euphoria of applause”:
I had a glitch or two
but perfection isn’t the goal
now that I’m over my peak
but under my expiration date
I hope to walk off the stage knowing
I can still float an elegant phrase
and spin a tender melody
As she makes clear in her book as well as in interviews, Zukerman is sustained by her family, her friends—and her fellow musicians.
Zukerman joined the union in 1962 while a student at Barnard College. She auditioned for the Columbia University Orchestra and, after winning a seat, was encouraged by her peers to join the union to help open doors for more performances. Zukerman also recalls reading through issues of International Musician at the time and thinking “it would be a great thing” to be a member of such a union.
“The AFM has always meant a lot to me,” she says. “If I had not joined at the beginning [of my performance career], I would not have been invited to play by different places. In those days, someone who was at college did a lot of church work, which I did, through the union, and that was tremendously important because looking back, I think to myself, I wasn’t really ready for that, but it made me ready for it. So, I feel very strongly about our union.”
Zukerman says that in her experience in various orchestras, musicians realized that if you wanted a career you needed to get serious and join with a union of your peers, and that such a union is full of people supporting each other and pulling for each other. “You can’t do it on your own,” she says.
“I know a lot of musicians who are struggling for different reasons,” she says. “And for me, when I’m struggling, I often either just go to my room, close the door and play, or I lie on the couch and listen to something that makes me weep. I like the playing better than the weeping, but I still do both. And I think that’s what music can do for us.”
Whatever she is doing—practicing or performing, listening or weeping—Zukerman has determined she will not bow to depression or grief. She feels “incredibly lucky” to have the love and support of her family and friends, she says, and she still has a lot of work to do and much more music to create and play. As she announces in her poem, “presenting the players”:
I learned an important lesson—
and here’s my confession—
What I can no
longer do with ease
I will find ways to do my best
I can make my best better.