Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano

Andrea Avery was 12 and a promising classical pianist when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. This often-misunderstood autoimmune disorder is characterized by inflamed and painful joints, muscles, tendons and bones. In the United States, 1.5 million adults and nearly 300,000 children are affected. "When you are a chronically ill child preparing for a life of disease, you get old before you grow up.... I got arthritis before I got my period."

In Sonata, Avery reflects candidly on her illness's physical and emotional aspects, deeply mourning its premature thwarting of her ambitions as a classical musician. "There is a particular pain in never having been given the opportunity to expand, honor, or exhaust whatever allowance of natural musical talent I had." She shares how the illness affected her already dysfunctional family, and her worries that love would be elusive because of her body's limitations. "Arthritis makes people think of their grandparents, which usually makes them uninterested in sex."
Encouraged by teachers, Avery still focuses on music. She draws meaning and motivation from Franz Schubert's Sonata in B-flat D960, a piece that prompted her return to the piano--long after intensive surgery--and influenced her professional direction. Comparing the 19th-century composer's brief life and her own, Avery bridges the sometimes infinitesimal difference between pain and joy. "There's so little difference--two tiny vowels--between melody and malady."

Subdued and introspective, Sonata examines the "cruel synchrony to be gifted with music and arthritis nearly simultaneously"--the aftermath of hopes and dreams erased before fully realizing one's potential and the connective force of music in our lives. --Melissa Firman, writer, editor and blogger at

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