Sonoma County musician writes moving memoir about how music healed her
“It always seems impossible until it’s done,” South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela once said about his anti-apartheid efforts.
That also sums up the life of Carol Rosenberger of Sonoma, who contracted an acute case of paralytic polio at age 21 while she was a promising, young pianist studying with Nadia Boulanger at Fontainebleau in France.
The crippling virus killed many of the motor neurons in her hands, arms, neck, back and core - all the muscles required to play piano - leading to drastic weight loss and tremors, muscle atrophy and chronic pain.
Despite all of her doctors’ advice to give up, Rosenberger refused, staying on in Europe for three years as she launched herself on a difficult, uphill journey of physical, mental and spiritual healing. Ten years later, after extensive physical therapy and rest, practice and “workarounds” for her damaged motor neurons, she realized her dream of becoming an international performing and recording artist, against all odds.
“If I stayed in Europe, I could learn things and study and bring more back to my piano playing,” the 84-year-old pianist explained over lunch at a Sonoma cafe. “It was the music that kept me on that path.”
Over the years, the strong-willed polio survivor has had no time to wallow in self-pity. As the daughter of a hard-working farm family from Michigan, whining was not part of her DNA. Instead, she used all of her spare energy to help others, teaching piano at several universities in Los Angeles while continuing to perform all over the world,
Since 2007, when Delos Music recording label founder Amelia Haygood passed away, Rosenberger has also served as general director of that revered classical record label named after the Greek island where Apollo, the god of music, was born. Delos Music is now based out of Sonoma, where Rosenberger has lived since 2009.
“I work for Delos from morning until late at night,” she said. “We are known for our sound quality and for the great artists we have recorded.”
During the past 25 years, Rosenberger has also been working on a memoir about her musical life before and after polio devastated her upper body and postponed her musical career. She started writing a few draft chapters back in the late ‘80s, which she sent to her parents. Then she kept plugging away at it, with the help of letters she originally sent to family and friends from Europe.
“To Play Again,” the moving memoir of her life as a musical survivor, was released earlier this week. It has already won a bronze medal at the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards for autobiography/memoir.
“In passages of precise, personal writing - the kind that holds a reader’s empathy - Rosenberger’s book brings us face to face with artistic crisis as experienced firsthand,” book reviewer Huntley Dent wrote in Fanfare magazine. “But what can be summarized in a few lines doesn’t come close to the emotional journey her book takes us on.”
Even as a child, Rosenberger recalls that her mother was always worried about polio, a viral infectious disease known to cripple children in particular because of their undeveloped immune systems. By the early 1950s, hundreds of thousands of people had died from polio, mostly children who would spread it to each other during the summer months.
“We worried about polio all my life,” she said. “My mother would not let us go into the pool in the summer.”
Before heading off to France in 1955, Rosenberger had been studying piano at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where Jonas Salk had been working on a polio vaccine since 1952. In 1954, national testing of the vaccine began on 1 million children, and on April 12, 1955, Salk’s vaccine was pronounced to be safe and effective.
Ironically, Rosenberger asked for the polio vaccine before she left for Europe, but the doctors told her they were only giving it to children at the time.
When the first wave of the polio virus swept through Fontainebleau, Rosenberger took to bed for a few days along with the other students, thinking it was just the flu. But then a week later, while practicing piano, she felt a pain shoot through her left hand.
She didn’t know it at the time, but it was the second stage of polio attacking her central nervous system (which happens in fewer than 1 percent of polio infections.)
“In Fontainebleau, everybody got the ‘flu,’” she said. “And only one person got paralytic polio - me. It was really random.”
That polio attack landed her in the hospital, where her muscles continued to atrophy during a high fever. She felt helpless and afraid, and the doctors did not tell her it was polio until her fever broke.