Barbara Sabanski has a to-do list.
It’s not a long list — just four items in total — and even though she’s never actually written it down, it’s something she’s held on to for most of her life. It’s also something she never thought she would complete.
Last year, Sabanski finally checked the first item off her list: get a dog.
"I nagged my husband for 41 years to get a dog and I finally got one when I was 74," she said, laughing.
Kordelia, a German shepherd-Labrador retriever mix named after Anne Shirley’s preferred moniker, has become Sabanski’s daily walking partner and constant companion.
The now 75-year-old crossed the fourth and final item off her list last Thursday, when she took the stage with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra during its annual Community Celebration at the Centennial Concert Hall.
In front of a crowd of approximately 1,600 people, Sabanksi — an amateur timpanist — picked up the mallets she brought from home and joined the symphony’s percussion section for a rendition of George Gershwin’s lively composition, I Got Rhythm.
"It was a strange experience because I was not nervous at the minute of performing — prior to that I was nervous for a week," she said. "The symphony people treated me with such respect… everybody encouraged me, they went out of their way to talk to me."
Sabanski was born in Winnipeg and lived in Toronto and Montreal before settling in Pinawa with her husband, Carl, four decades ago. Her daughter, Robyn McIntyre, son-in-law, grandchildren and a host of friends and neighbours were all in the audience during Thursday’s performance.
"It was amazing, I thought she did a fantastic job… I think my dad was more worried about it than she was," McIntyre said. "I’m just really proud of her, she went out to do something and she did it."
“The symphony people treated me with such respect… everybody encouraged me, they went out of their way to talk to me.” -Barbara Sabanski
Although Sabanski doesn’t consider herself a wonderful musician, the artform has always been part of her life in one way or another.
She took accordion lessons when she was a child — the result of a Polish upbringing, she says — and was involved in church choirs as an adult. She decided to learn how to play the drums after her daughter got involved in the local Eastman Community Band.
"I had never held any kind of mallets or drumsticks in my hands ever before that," said Sabanski, who has been attending weekly rehearsals in the band room at Pinawa Secondary School and playing annual concerts with her bandmates for 23 years now.
The sound of the timpani, or kettledrums, is what drew her to the instrument.
"The notes are very low and they’re very soothing to me, I have only 50 per cent of my hearing so I do not like sounds that are high or shrill."
She likens playing the "timps" to the connection she feels with her dog during their morning walks.
"It’s not the instrument and you," she said. "You actually become the instrument."
Those who know her describe Sabanski as a tireless volunteer who is passionate about giving back to her community.
"She’s one of those people that volunteers for all sorts of worthwhile causes and she’s a very selfless kind of person," Eastman Community Band director Peter Hayward said.
However, playing music is something Sabanski does entirely for herself and, for a long time, the idea of playing with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra was little more than an indulgent dream.
"It was like a jewel I would pull out of my pocket and then shove right back in."
When she started making headroom on her list last year, the loftiest item started to seem a bit more possible.
Shortly after getting Kordelia, Sabanski signed herself up for private swimming lessons. In nine trips to the pool she learned how to swim and turned a lifelong point of embarrassment into a personal triumph.
A lover of American history, she checked off item number three in March, when she travelled to Washington, D.C., with her daughter. All that was left was playing with the symphony.
It turns out, all she had to do was ask.
"When I talked to her she was genuinely surprised that anyone would call her back," WSO vice-president of artistic operations and community engagement Jean-Francois Phaneuf said.
"There’s quite a few people that would like to play with the orchestra, but we can’t say yes all the time. That email caught my attention because at the end she said, ‘By the way I’m 75 years old.’"
“I hope that when I reach 75 I’m going to be exactly like Barbara.” -Jean-Francois Phaneuf, WSO
Her story struck a chord with the orchestra and principal timpanist Mike Kemp even wrote a special part of I’ve Got Rhythm for her to play. This is the first time in Phaneuf’s career a community member has been invited to join the ensemble for a one-off concert.
"I love it, it’s one of my favourite stories," he said. "I hope that when I reach 75 I’m going to be exactly like Barbara."
And that’s exactly the kind of sentiment Sabanski hopes to inspire in others.
Overcoming her fears and accomplishing lifelong goals has become a priority for Sabanski, who has noticed an uptick in the number of deaths and serious illnesses among friends her age in recent years. Now, her to-do list is more of a bucket list.
"It’s a shake-up is what it is," she said. "We don’t know how much time we have left."
Sabanski says the process of completing all four items on her bucket list has taught her resilience and self-reliance.
"Most of the people I know who are my age, they feel invisible," she said. "You better look after yourself because nobody else is going to, if you want to do something it’s up to you to do it."
After Thursday’s performance with the symphony, she was feeling relieved and inspired.
"I never thought it would happen, but I’ve started another list and it’s got something big on it," she said, declining to divulge what she hopes to accomplish next.
Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.