Abbey Simon has played piano in the greatest concert halls around the world. But right now, the 96-year-old would settle for a renewed moment of freedom in front of any piano.
Doctors and occupational therapists with Harris Health System are helping him do just that.
Simon was a child prodigy: a virtuoso whose career spanned decades, continents and a vast catalog of classical music. Splitting his time between homes in Geneva and Houston, the UH Cullen Professor founded the International Piano Festival at the University of Houston in 1984. But earlier this year, he was in a car crash in Houston, suffering a badly broken right wrist and two broken fingers on the same hand.
"You know me well enough now to know that I make a lot of noise,” he said to his occupational therapist on his last rehab visit to Quentin Mease Hospital. "But the pain is real.”
The legendary pianist now has a metal plate and several screws in his reconstructed right wrist. Pins have since been removed that helped his broken fingers heal. But his medical team, including occupational therapist Ellen Wang Tan, believe he can return to his pre-accident form.
"He's a wonderful patient,” Tan said, admitting that the first time she met Simon, she didn’t know just how famous his legendary fingers were.
"I was pushing on his fingers at Ben Taub (Hospital), and he goes, ‘You're hurting me. I'm a concert pianist.’ And I didn't believe him -- quite honestly -- at first," she said.
But now, with just a few of his albums in her possession on the therapy table at Quentin Mease, a regimen of exercise equipment for the pianist to endure, and even a small keyboard that the self-avowed perfectionist refuses to play much in public until he's perfect again, Tan and a medical team are trying to bring the virtuoso back.
"I want to play at least as badly as I played before,” Simon said. “Put it that way."
Simon is among the best of the best, used to practicing more than six hours a day. But right now, he's frustrated. The hand is stiff, the pain is -- at times -- intense.
“Frustrated? It’s the wrong word to use. Foul language is all that is possible,” he said.
But his doctors and his therapist believe he can play again. He has the drive of a perfectionist, 96-year-old fingers or not.
"And I think that comes down to the fact that his goal is to get back to the piano,” Tan said.
Because the thought of not playing, Simon admitted, is just too much to bear.
"If you are a music lover, it stays with you whether you like it or not, until your last breath," he said.
I reminded him that a lot of people would definitely like to see him overcome the injury and hear him wow audiences with his concertos and sonatas again.
"Not as much as I would love to hear me play again,” he said emphatically. “I'm not exactly a shrinking violet,” he said with a laugh.
Simon's goal is to be playing again by the time his Houston piano festival rolls around next year. But whether he makes it or not, he says it's the pursuit of perfection that matters. And with the help of a Houston medical team, the music of Abbey Simon isn’t history just yet.
“Take care. I know you will be back playing,” Tan told him as they embraced at the end of his last occupational therapy session at Quentin Mease.
“Oh, I will certainly die trying,” he said with a smile.