Sonoma County musician writes moving memoir about how music healed her

Despite doctors' advice to give up, Carol Rosenberger, stricken with polio at the age of 21, kept going.|

“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.”

Polio vaccine

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.

“I seemed to have lost control, not only of my muscles, but also of my emotions,” she wrote in the book. “I cried if the nurse was abrupt with me; I cried if I tried to turn over and couldn’t; I cried because I couldn’t lift a teacup. It was as if my emotions had been scraped raw.”

Later, when she consulted polio experts at a Copenhagen hospital, the doctors explained to her that the virus kills the motor neurons that have been used between the first and the second stages of attack.

For most young children, that means it damages their legs, because they love to run and jump. But for an ambitious pianist practicing eight hours a day, it meant losing the motor neurons in her upper body and core.

Key advice

After a few weeks of rest and rehab, Rosenberger went back to Paris to continue her studies with Boulanger, despite her weakened state. The famous woman pedagogue was supportive and offered a key piece of advice.

“She encouraged me to think through the piano masterpieces that I loved the most and live inside them,” she said. “Then, if I could play again, they’re there.”

Rosenberger’s parents also served as solid pillars, supporting her decision to “keep trying” despite doctors repeatedly telling her she would never play piano again.

“They did not want me to end up as some broken thing,” she said. “If I didn’t want to give up, they didn’t want me to be pushed into giving up.”

So, along with a friend who was a singer, Rosenberger moved to Vienna to continue her musical studies, studying Baroque style and music theory. She also helped voice students learn their parts, by plunking out one piano note at a time. In the process, she got to live inside all kinds of beautiful arias and German art songs.

“I felt that was all part of my musical development,” she said. “Every instrumental musician tries to imitate the voice.”

In 1959, Rosenberger moved back to the states and spent two years doing “piano rehab” with her former teacher, Webster Aitken, in Santa Fe. Then, at his urging, she moved o Los Angeles, where the warmer climate would be able to soothe her damaged muscles.

There, at the encouragement of family and friends, she started performing again for small groups. She met Hay??good, a fervent classical music lover, at a mutual friends’ house. The clinical psychologist helped Rosenberger understand, for the first time, what the disease had stolen from her.

“She encouraged me to explore what it really felt like,” she said. “I had never been able to grieve for my lost magic.”

Discover solutions

Haygood also encouraged the pianist to play small concerts for her social worker colleagues, who worked with troubled kids and needed the comfort of classical music. This allowed the pianist to discover neuromuscular “solutions” that she would not have found playing for herself, due to the extra adrenaline that comes with a live performance.

“Everything slows down, so you have more time to find a way to get what you want your neuromuscular apparatus to do,” she said. “But you have to think through it in slow motion first.”

Finally, Rosenberger was able to give a European concert tour in 1964, at the age of 30, nine years after the first attack of polio.

Although no one knew about her polio experience, she would eventually share her story with others on subsequent tours of the U.S. and Europe, then go on to lead workshops on physical and psychological preparation for performance.

In 1969, she took some time out for more post-polio physical therapy, then plunged back into international touring in New York, London and Paris, where she enjoyed a poignant reunion with Boulanger.

“Her playing was alive to every fleeting sense impression, yet intellectually commanding,” the Daily Telegraph wrote of her performance in London.

Began teaching

Meanwhile, Rosenberger had joined the music faculty of the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, and in 1973, she started teaching at California State University, Northridge. Later, she would be invited to teach at the University of Southern California.

In 1973, she also started recording for the fledgling Delos label, choosing to launch with the piano music of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski because very little of his music was available at the time.

“Hardly anyone knew it, and that overcame my fear,” she said. “I could introduce people to his fascinating music.”

In 1974, MS Magazine published an article about the post-polio pianist, and when she played at Lincoln Center’s Tully Hall afterward, the entire magazine staff, including Editor Gloria Steinem, sent her a note and came to the concert, sitting in the front rows.

More concerts and recordings followed during the next decade, and in 1984, the pianist deepened her role at Delos, working on “the other side of the microphone” as a record producer with legendary recording engineer John Eargle.

She edited some of her own recordings (she has 30 on the Delos label) as well as those of musicians such as pianist John Browning.

At Delos, she pioneered concept recordings with the 1989 release of her “Perchance to Dream: A Lullaby Album for Children and Adults” and developed a series of “Recordings for Young People,” including narration, as well as a series of “Baby Needs ...” CDs, such as “Baby Needs Bach” and “Baby Needs Beethoven.”

“Amelia always called Delos ‘The Baby’ and put its needs ahead of hers,” Rosenberger said. “This was ‘The Baby’ offering babies music.”

New challenge

When both Haygood and Eargle died in 2007, Rosenberger was sure the label would not survive. Never one to back down from a challenge, however, the artist took over the reins and tackled the steep learning curve of running a business.

She lucked out in 2008 when she got a call from Jim Selby, then CEO of Naxos of America, offering to become the distributor of Delos.

“They are the biggest distributor for independent classic labels,” she said. “Marketing and distribution was what I was having a hard time with.”

In 2009, she sold her Santa Monica home and moved with her 9.5-foot Bösendorfer ?Imperial Concert Grand, affectionately known as “Boesi,” to the Creekside Village, a retirement community in Sonoma.

She chose Sonoma because it’s where her longtime friend Constantine Orbelian, a pianist-conductor, lives along with members of his family.

These days, Rosenberger spends more time at the computer than the piano keyboard, but she still plays for herself from time to time, to reconnect with the great masters.

“Right now I’m playing Rachmaninoff Etudes and some Debussy,” she said.

“But if I could choose only one, it would be either Mr. Bach or Mr. Beethoven. They are so reassuring ... they reassure us that there is so much meaning.”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.