Octogenarian Pianist Plays on

Hometown Heroes, People
on June 10, 2001

Ida Colby, 80, steers her motorized scooter to the edge of the stage and pushes herself up until shes leaning against the banister, holding herself up on her hands. Then she drags her paralyzed legs up to the piano bench at the top of the stairs. The lunchtime crowd is already forming at the Canby Adult Center in the town of 13,170. Its Monday and theyve come to hear Ida.

Colby makes up for the loss of movement in her legs as soon as her hands touch the piano. Her fingers ripple over the keys, ripping out tunes such as Somewhere My Love, You Are My Sunshine, Roll Out the Barrels, and other classics from the 1920s to 1950s.

Many of the seniors in the audience become lost in memory. Others clap or tap their toes. Most are smiling. Colby barely moves except for her fingers. Her face is slack, but her clear blue eyes scan the crowd behind rose-tinted bifocals. The four or five accompanying musicians, who sometimes play with Colby, just try to keep up.

Its amazing, the range she can play, says Stella Kaser, a harmonica player and friend. She knows hundreds of songs from the past that just make people feel happy. Shes just darn good and has incredible timing to hold it all together.

And the music also holds Colby together. Few of her fans from the senior centers and nursing homes in the small communities around her hometown of Gladstone, Ore., (pop. 12,020) know about the constant pain Colby endures. She rarely discusses the trouble with her heart or her numerous surgeries and other setbacks. And Colby never complains about a childhood marked by the loss of her mother when she was 4, and the troubles that befell her after that. Everybodys got problems, Colby says. She doesnt want to bore people with her bad memories.

Instead, Colby puts her energy and emotion into the music, as she has for 75 years. She was 4 when she learned how to press down on an organ pedal while standing on the other to make music. At 6, Colbys great-aunt, whom she lived with briefly after the death of her mother, enrolled her in piano lessons.

I was used to doing things my way. Still am, says Colby, whose gray curls bounce when she laughs. At the first lesson, I used my fingers wrong. Didnt put my finger on the right notes, so the teacher cracked em with a ruler.

That was Colbys last piano lesson. She never learned to read music but plays the accordion, organ, and piano by ear. She stores thousands of tunes in her memory and can recall them in an instant. Her favorite performances are for Alzheimers patients, who often sit quietly, with their heads down until Colby starts to play.

Then you play something that they recognize, and they open their eyes and lift their heads, and some sing along even when they havent spoken for months, Colby says.

An audiences joy is the payoff for Colby, who averages a phenomenal 35 engagements a month. She lives on a limited income and receives some financial assistance from the county due to her disability. She and the others who accompany her on stage are offered a free lunch at the centers where they play and a once-in-awhile $25 donation, which is saved until the group has enough to buy itself dinner.

Colby doesnt expect more than that, even though she admits its getting harder to keep up with her demanding schedule. But dont expect her to quit any time soon.

Ive tried to cut back, Colby says. They just wont let me. Often I think Id like to quit, but then what would I do? Probably just sit around and grow mold.