Pianist Maurice De Kinder on personal transformation and the joy of bringing music to palliative care
“The day before I come to palliative care, I say to myself, ‘tomorrow is my day of love.’ Coming here is an hour of love.”
By Devon Phillips. Maurice De Kinder taps on his head and says, “there’s only music in here, no brain, don’t even try to figure it out.” For the last 22 years, Maurice has been playing piano in palliative care units, first at the RVH, then at the MGH. Anyone who has had the pleasure of hearing him play knows that not only does he have a great mind full of ideas and philosophy and yes, music (his repertoire consists of 400 songs, classical and popular, all played by memory), he also has a very big heart. June 11 marked the last day Maurice played the piano at the MGH. Thankfully, we can all continue to enjoy his music at the new MUHC Glen site every Thursday afternoon. I met with Maurice in the sunroom of the palliative care unit at the MGH in Montréal, just before his piano was rolled away.
Q: How did you come to play the piano in the palliative care unit?
A:My brother-in-law was a volunteer in palliative care at the Royal Victoria Hospital and they had lost a musician so he called me and said,“come and play”. I retired from work in October 1993 as a computer programmer and bookkeeper,and two months later, in December 1993, I started playing at the Royal Vic. I played at the Royal Vic every Thursday afternoon at 2:30 for 10 years, and in July 2003 I started playing here at the MGH.
Q: Is it the same piano here as at the RVH?
A: No. At the RVH I had a terrible piano when I started there. After a number of years a donor donated $5,000 for a piano for palliative care and that’s the piano I play on now and that piano isleaving at 3 o’clock today, after that, it goes to another department. So next Thursday I’ll be playing at the Glen on a temporary piano, just a keyboard. I tried it and have accepted to play on it until we get a new piano and apparently, there will be a new piano.I’ve been playing on the same piano for 12 years. It’s an absolute joy to play on this piano.
Q: So you have been playing piano for 10 years at the RVH, and 12 years here at the MGH, so that’s 22 years in total for palliative care. You have a lot of energy!
A:I will be 89 in December. Some people ask me,” what’s your secret, you look so alive for a man your age.” I don’t know. I take that from my mother, she wanted to live to 100. That’s the secret─ to want to live to 100. I live in an old age residence and one of my co-residents celebrated her 100th and she is in top shape. She has a sister who is 103 and so it’s all in there (points to his head). I have been living my life and all of sudden I woke up one morningand I was 88. Gee- life has gone by so fast! I don’t feel 88. So I don’t know what the secret is!
Q: Maybe that’s your secret −not to worry about it. Just live your life. What do you think?
A:Yes! The people I stick around with are the age of my children.
Q: Are you a Montrealer originally?
A:Yes. I was born on St.Urbain Street in Montreal. My four children live far away. I have seven grandchildren and one great-grandson. When I was growing up,it was time when bread and ice were deliveredby horse wagons. Milk was delivered by horse-driven vehicles because there were no frigidaires. When you crossed the street you had to watch out to not step on horse excrement. There were very few cars then but today it is bumper to bumper. In those days you could be between Bernard and St.Viateurstreets and there could be maybe two cars on each side. Only rich people had cars. I am talking of the time before the war.
Q: Tell me about how you got into music.
A: I was the youngest of six children. My father sang opera. He was a tenor – he had a good voice but he never sang professionally. My mother liked music but she never made music. Three of us six children were musicians so I grew up with music. Two sisters played the piano, one played the violin, a brother played violin, and my sisters sang. When I was four and wanted to be like everyone else, I climbed on the piano bench and I started playing a children’s song. I found the notes on the keyboard so I started playing them from what I heard. I spent time on the piano and my father noticed that. My father left an autobiographyand that’s a good document from my childhood, so that’s how I know I started playing at age four. That was all by ear. My father knew how to read music because he sang opera . He could take an opera score and he could read the notes and find them on the piano. I was around six or seven and one day he said he wanted to show me how to read music. So he showed me what he knew which wasn’t much─ black notes, white notes, and the value of the notes and that only took maybe an hour and that was it. That was his only involvement in my music-making, and from that point on I took the Belak piano music for beginners, music which was hanging around and which my sisters had used, and started finding the notes and within months I was playing the whole thing. So I am self taught because I loved it. I am an opera fan and I receive a magazine on opera and I read stories on opera singers and how they started. Some started as pianists or violinists. Some sang because singing was their life. They couldn’t not sing and so they became professionals. It’s just as easy as that. I would have become a professional pianist but I did not.
Q: Why was that?
A:My childhood was very unhappy. My youth was a very unhappy. My father was tyrannical and often violent. He had big anger spells every day. I never had a relationship with him at all. The only thing that we had in common was that he sang and I accompanied him on the piano.Outside of that there was nothing, no relationship, and therewas nothing with my mother. I would have liked to have had a mother who would have counterbalanced my father. Both my parents came from families that did not like childrenyet they had six children. There were no birth control pills in those days. So we all had to undergo my father’s hot temper. I grew up being terribly afraid of him and I was fearful of people so a career in music was impossible. I learned by myself and one day when I was 18, I had a Chopin concertin the local Parochial Hall and the hall was full of people and it was a great success. But I was self taught. Somebody in the audience came to see me after and said, “you should go and see a master”. So I went to see a pianist who taught at the observatory. I studied for three years with him. He gave me a technique that I still have and which allows me to play the way I play today. He was strict but he taught mea lot. I had been very careless; I did not always play exactly what was written so he put his foot down and said, “none of that stuff”.He taught me discipline in music. I was looking forward to a career as a pianist with him as my mentor but it did not work out because of my personality. I was still a very fearful person. I did not have the personality to smile and talk with everyone. Everything was all inside. I changed later in life in my 50s and my 60s. I changed my personality. I did group therapy, I did all kinds of things and I changed. Today I smile easily which I could not do 20 or 30 years ago and I relate easily to people which I couldn’t do before. So it’s a transformation that I am very happy about.
Q: Can I ask you what led you to seek this transformation?
A: I wanted to get away from the atmosphere of the family where I grew up. There is only one of my sisters with whom I ever shared fraternal love and that is my eldest sister. The others all looked down on me, they talked down to me. It was painful. I was like that with people too and so I never had friends until 20 years ago. I was not a warm father, but I am now! If I could start over again, I would smother my children with affection but I did not give them any affection because it was not in my blood. I never got affection from my parents. So the love I was unable to give when I was younger, I am giving it now, and I am having a great time.
Q: You worked hard for this transformation. Has it made a difference in how your life is now?
A:Yes! Now I can relate to people. I live in an old age residence and whenI walk in there I say hello to everyone. There are 180 co-tenants and I am surprised to see that I am just about the only one who does this. Most of the social ones are women.Most of the men, they are loners. So I feel privileged to have gone through my transformation because now I have an easy relationship with people – it’s like in this department.
Q: Tell me what it’s like to play the piano in palliative care.
A:The day before I come to palliative care, I say to myself, “tomorrow ismy day of love.” Coming here is an hour of love. I am in love with everyone here and everybody is inlove with me. It is so new for me. It’s not that many years ago that I wasn’t like that and its like a... I’m trying to find the right word, I don’t speak English very much. I live my life in French. I was raised in French and I raised my children in French but my father sent all his children to English schools because jobs went to those who were bilingual. So what happened is that we were all going to English schools so it was inevitable we all spoke to each other in English because we talked about what was going on in school and all our friends were Anglophonesand my father was enraged! He wanted us to speak French! One night we were all in bed and we were supposed to be sleeping. He was in the corridor and he heard us speaking, and we were speaking in English, so he said, “speak French, and, shut up!!”
Q:Tell me more about playing the piano here. How do you know what songs to choose?
A: That’s a good question. Sometimes I play classical music because I am a trained classical pianist but if I was a strictly classical pianist I might not have much success here because people want to hear the songs from their younger days. When I had been married only a few months, I met somebody who played in a small ensemble, weddings, banquetsand all that, so he said, “here is the telephone number of our boss, the one who could hire you”. So I went to see him and he auditioned me and he hired me. I played every week for weddings and banquetsand this introduced me to popular music.
Q: What are some of the songs that are popular on the palliative care unit? What kinds of music do people like to hear?
A: I knowabout 400 pieces. I usually have the list in front of me. It depends who my audience is. Sometimes I will play French popular songs, sometimes English popular songs and I play mostly for people who are visitors and who come into the sunroom. I can hear what language they are speaking- but if they are speaking Hungarian- I won’t know what theywant!
Q: 400 Songs! And do you use sheet music when you are playing?
A: No, it’s all in my head.
Q: How do people respond? Do they appreciate you?
A: Yes! I can tell by the smile on their face that they appreciate the music. They may not say anything when I am playing but when they leave, they say,” oh thank you, that was so nice”. This happens whether they are French or English. Sometimes I play classical music but less and less, because people want songs that they know.
Q; Your ability to provide music for people is such a gift!
A:I know other people who see this as a gift but I don’t. Music is just part of my life. I love playing the piano and I love playing for people and I love giving enjoyment to people. I give enjoyment to people on Wednesday evenings in my residence. People come to where the piano is in the dining hall and I have a book with the words to 200 songs in French and people sing and I accompany them on the piano. All I have in front of me is the booklet with the words. Inside of six months the people who come regularly they know them all and for many of them the songs are new.And I am amazed at how easily they pick it up and I tell them, “you are wonderful”.
Q: I am sure they think you are wonderful! Music really is the universal language.
A: I agree. In Europe the opera houses are full, and that’s classical music. And there are bars there full with popular music. I speak three languages and I correspond in all three. My third language is Esperanto. I speak it fluently and my father was the cofounder of the Esperanto group in Montreal.
Q: Looking to the future, do you plan to keep on playing?
A: Yes, I’ll be playing at palliative care unit at the new MUHC Glen site every Thursday2:30-3:30. I enjoy giving joy!