101 years old, and still playing the piano

Piano tunes in the key of a 101-year-old’s life. She’s played for seniors since she was 84

Wednesday, May 21, 2008
BY SUSAN L. OPPAT
The Ann Arbor News

Agnes Warren has played the piano since she was a child and has a repertoire of thousands of songs.

They’re all stored safely in her memory, dating back to before she was born – more than 101 years ago.

The fact that her music selection goes back so far is important to the seniors at The Oaks adult daycare center in Ann Arbor, where many find it easier to remember the words of a 60-year-old song than what they had for lunch that day.

Warren, of Ann Arbor, was 84 when she started volunteering through the Catholic Social Services Retired and Senior Volunteer Program to play at The Oaks and several senior residences around Ann Arbor.

She’ll be honored on June 19 as the oldest active volunteer in RSVP, a 600-volunteer program.

Warren’s hands are now gnarled, her left thumb bent outward at a nearly 90-degree angle. The joints in her fingers look like swollen knots on her tiny hands.

She rests one hand on her daughter’s arm when she walks, mostly because she can’t really see where she’s going.

But she’s still engaged in what she can do for others.

Every Wednesday, Warren plays at The Oaks at the Ann Arbor Church of Christ. She pops in at other local senior residences like Lurie Terrace, Hillside Terrace and University Living every month or so.

On a recent day, Warren – at 4 feet, 7 inches and decked out in peach slacks and matching peach, pink and purple blouse – plunked down at the piano for nine members at The Oaks. The big-screen TV was off, the piano front-and-center.

With no sheet music, Warren swung into a 25-minute set, sliding effortlessly from key to key and song to song. She moved from up tempo to jazzy, swept into swing, threw in a little boogie woogie, slid back in time to ragtime, then further back to the gay ’90s – the 1890s.

Her playlist included “It Had to be You,” “Stormy Weather,” “Danny Boy,” “Amazing Grace,” and even a favorite of one Oaks member – “How Much is That Doggie in the Window.” Her music got some of the seniors on their feet to dance with each other or staff – even if the dancing was simply swaying back and forth or swinging their hands to the beat.

“It means a great deal to them,” Oaks program assistant Judy Kopa said. “It brings back memories.”

Adds site director Greg Perkins, “Working here, you deal with a different reality, and that reality can change second by second.” With the music, he said, “They go back in time.”

Warren was born in Scotland and is the last surviving of nine siblings. Her family immigrated when she was 3, and she was raised in Montrose, near Flint.

She started playing the piano as a child, studying to be a concert pianist in music conservatories in Flint. She learned to memorize the music from a teacher who wouldn’t let students who needed sheet music perform in recitals.

“It doesn’t look good, having music on the piano,” she said.

Warren played in her teens at silent movie theaters in Montrose, where she chose her own music to accompany the films and expanded her repertoire.

Her father wanted her to study for a music career in France, but then she met Eric Warren at a dance.

“When I met him,” she recalled, “I didn’t think about the piano.”

They married in 1929 and had six children.

“I didn’t miss the piano. I had one in my home, so I had my piano, and him too,” she said. “I had it all.”

The couple moved to Ann Arbor when Eric got a job in radio repairs, and he eventually opened his own radio and television repair and sales shop downtown.

Warren kept a hand in her music, playing at places like the Grotto and the Liberty Cocktail Bar. Eric died of a heart attack in 1961.

Warren now lives with her daughter, Yvonne Gillies, who moved in with her after a divorce.

Warren had a health scare when she turned 101 in December and came down with pneumonia. She had to get a pacemaker – but got back to volunteer work as soon as she could.

“I like to play for them,” Warren said. “It gives me a lift. It would be very dull if I couldn’t play the piano.”

Susan Oppat can be reached at soppat@annarbornews.com or 734-482-1166.

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