Music therapy

By Wayne Bryan Published April 19, 2012 at 3:59 a.m.
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— Acancer treatment center is a serious place.

The decisions made there and the treatments received are matters of life and death. People enter carrying fear of or memories of pain.

Yet, several days a week, those coming into the St. Joseph’s Mercy Cancer Center in Hot Springs often smile when they enter the front doors. The lobby is filled with music as the piano lady, Barbara Richards, plays a small grand piano for the enjoyment of the patients, visitors and staff.

An accomplished pianist with a long professional career as an accompanist, Richards can play just about anything.

“Mostly I play gospel music and classic pieces,” she said. “There was one patient who would come in with her husband, and they would ask me toplay the same two hymns every time. Usually the patient’s husband would listen to one while she was back having treatment; then they would hear the other one together before they left.”

Richards understands the therapeutic power of music because she is also a patient.

“I found out I had cancer under my tongue two years ago,” she said. “I was sent to the [Winthrop Rockefeller] Cancer Institute at UAMS (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) in LittleRock, a nd t he f irst t hing I see is a piano. I played a couple of times, and people there started asking me to play when I would come in, and that is when they started calling me the piano lady.”

Barbara’s husband, Bob Richards, said she played for herself as much as for the other patients.

“Once she got to a piano a nd bega n to play, it was great therapy for her,” Bob said. “Music is soothing. It settles the soul.”

At UA MS , doc tors removed the tumor and about a third of Barbara’s tongue. It has affected her speech, but with therapy and her hard work, she is easy to understand.

“While I was there, I played all the time,” Barbara said. “When I was released, they asked me to play for my doctor’s birthday, and I performed in the atrium of the Rockefeller Center and challenged my doctor to play as well. He did pretty good.”

After the surgery, she elected to forgo radiation treatments. Six months later, a checkup found the cancer had returned. Barbara underwent a second surgery in Little Rock and that time accepted radiation treatments.

“I didn’t want to drive to Little Rock all the time, so I had my treatments at the cancer center in Hot Springs,” Barbara said. “Once the staff heard I played the piano, they asked me to play, but there was no piano.”

That changed when a piano student of Barbara’s decided to move to Colorado. He owned a Chickering piano made in 1927 that had all the original wood and ivory keys, but was told moving the piano to Colorado would adversely affect the instrument.

“Most pianos that old are ready for the junk pile. It’s two years older than I am,” Barbara said. “But the Chickerings have a reputation for aging well.”

Bob and Barbara had theidea for a donor to purchase the piano and donate it to the Mercy Cancer Center. But the more they thought about it, the more they decided they should be the donors.

“Barb and I were talking about it,” Bob said. The couple decided to buy the piano and “give it to the Cancer Center and give it a good home.”

“We feel like the guardians of the great old piano,” Barbara said. “It’s a wonderful thing for me, and it lets me use my talent to help other people.”

Barbara started playing the piano when she was 6, much to the chagrin of her older sister.

“She was three years older than me and taking lessons,” Barbara said. “She would play something; then I would play the same thing after her from memory.”

Her sister became an oboe player, while Barbara stayed with the piano.

While still in grade school, Barbara decided she wanted to be an accompanist, and before long, she was playing for the high school students.

Barbara studied piano at the University of Illinois, where her teacher was an acclaimed accompanist.

“He wou ld br i ng t wo - piano music into my lesson, ha nd me a copy a nd say, ‘Keep up with me.’”

After graduation, Barbara taught piano at Tulane University, where she often, with very little time for practice, played for the New Orleans Region Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions, play ing complex arias for some of the country’s best young singers.

Af ter 25 years, she returned to the University of Illinois to pursue a master’s degree in piano performance and met John Wustman, one of the world’s most famous accompanists. He is known for play ing t he pia no for many of the world ’s leading opera stars and always accompanied Luciano Pavarotti when he toured the United States.

“In six months of working together, we became lifelong friends,” Barbara said of Wustman.

They worked together to create transcriptions for piano accompaniments for operas.

“He could play piano from a full orchestral score, and I could transcribe,” Barbara said.

The R ichardses moved to Hot Springs more than 10 years ago, after they had both retired.

“My niece Diane Keshling and her husband had moved here and were always inviting us down,” Barbara said.

Barbara’s niece was a major performer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York,and her husband, Jascha Silberstein, was the opera’s principal cellist.

“We visited, and everything we were looking for in a home was right here,” Bob said.

Barbara still comes to the cancer clinic as a patient and performer. She still has treatments and undergoes therapy to relearn to swallow.

“If I didn’t have something like this, it would be a real downer,” Barbara said.

Bob said Barbara needed the piano at the clinic.

“Once she got the piano here and began to play, the pain of the surgery and the radiation became secondary. She had the music,” he said.

Kay McHughs, clinical supervisor of the cancer clinic in Hot Springs, said Barbara’s playing has been good for everyone at the clinic.

“It has been good for the staff,” she said. “People walk in and hear her playing, and they will smile or get real emotional.”

McHughs said she a nd other health care officials at the clinic are thinking of working the arts into the center’s recovery program.

“There is help that comes beyond medical therapy,” she said.

Barbara also knows that is true and keeps play ing along.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or

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