Ruth Magied sits down at the piano in her Midwood apartment and dives into Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Her fingers lightly, fluently, dance over the keys.
The music stops after a few minutes and Magied stands up. She turns from the piano, the instrument that filled her childhood, to the topic that occupied her adolescence — pain.
“Pain,” she says, “can destroy your brain. It’s like having four root canals that never go away. It’s like having someone hitting you over your head with a frying pan.”
For the 44-year-old Brooklyn native, pain is as familiar as the piano, which she started playing at age 3, mastered during her teens, and stopped at 17, when she became ill. “I started having weird pains in my arms.” She was eventually diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a constriction of the spine, and a host of other diseases that left her virtually crippled; she did not play the piano again for 16 years.
Today, she walks, and handles the keyboard, with apparent ease. There is no sign of her medical past, her countless surgeries, her still-unhealed scars. And no sign of bitterness. “I have invisible disabilities — for life,” Magied says. “I have limitations. I need so much rest.”
A piano player again for 11 years who has produced six CDs, Magied, who will perform Sunday at the Kings Bay Y, is a tenured special education teacher in the New York public school system. An advocate for teaching music to students with developmental problems, Magied unabashedly loves her life as “musical mother.”
“I’m very happy feeling like a mother of a thousand kids,” she says. “I feel like a mommy all the time.”
Flipping through a scrapbook of herself in concert and in the classroom, Magied points to photos of her students — “my children” — happily singing. Her students have various degrees of mental retardation, and autism. “I really like being with the ‘big babies.’ I understand their problems very, very well — because of my abilities and disabilities. I have the patience. I want to repeat things over thousands of times. That’s my mission – to help my students do things they haven’t been able to do.”
As a child, Magied foresaw a career as a concert pianist. As an adult, she saw that goal was unrealistic. “If I had been healthy enough to be a concert pianist, if I had children of my own, would I be getting on a plane and flying away?” she asks. “I don’t think so.”
Home, the apartment she shares with her husband and two cats, is a few blocks from where she grew up. “I like to be home,” she says. “I like to be very close to my family.”
Magied skips over the 16 lost years. “I was surviving,” she says. Then a family friend suggested a career in special education. Interested, Magied enrolled in Brooklyn College. “Piano,” she says, “was out of the question.”
At one of her first jobs after college, she taught her students basic skills — combing hair, tying shoes. One day another teacher tried playing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” on the piano.
“I can do better than her,” Magied thought. She did. The kids started singing. “They loved it.”
Music was back in her life. “It became an obsession.”
She teaches her students classical and Broadway music. She brings her professional colleagues to her classroom. She takes her student chorus to give concerts at area nursing homes. She lobbies for better musical instruments.
And she has taken her own piano lessons.
After a decade, Magied says, she plays as if she never had stopped. Reviews from her recent concerts, at Carnegie Weill Hall and the Brooklyn Museum, back up her opinion.
“I have much better technique now,” she says. She relies on her shoulders, compensating for her still-weak arms. “I can’t lift much, but I can put weight down.” She still has trouble sitting for a long time; a pillow on her piano bench is the only visible concession to spinal problems. “It takes 10 years to recover from one operation. I’ve had quite a few” — the most recent was in September.
Most of Magied’s concerts are benefits, fund-raising performances for such organizations as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and the National Alliance for Research into Schizophrenia and Depression.
“Music should be used for good,” she says. “I made a promise to God when I started playing that I would rebuild my life through tzedakah.”
A member of Young Israel of Vanderveer Park, Magied does not play on Shabbat.
“I’m doing a mitzvah,” she says. “God is with me. You can’t have music without mitzvah.”
“People can always benefit from tzuris,” Magied says. “That’s become my prayer.” Ruth Magied will perform Sunday, Feb. 27, 2 p.m., at the Kings Bay Y, 3495 Nostrand Ave. Tickets are $8; seniors $6. For information, call (718) 648-7703.