Sharing the joy of making music01/14/2016 10:35AM ● By J. Chambless
The Grateful Alive brings nostalgic music, free of charge, to area nursing homes and senior centers.
By John Chambless
As band director Mary Aldworth took her seat on the piano bench, facing the assembled musicians, and nodded for the show to begin, the decades began to fall away.
The members of the Avon Grove Seniors, seated comfortably in the fellowship hall of the West Grove Presbyterian Church on Jan. 13, nodded in recognition of “When You're Smiling,” tapping their toes to the jaunty rhythm. It's the kind of time travel that happens at every performance by the Grateful Alive, a band whose members are in their 70s or older and are, well, grateful to be alive.
For the past two decades, the band has played – free of charge – in nursing homes, hospitals, senior centers, and at community events, bringing the joy of music to audiences who sometimes have precious little joy in their lives. For the members of the band – currently about 20, but it varies – learning new music and maintaining a full slate of shows keeps their minds sharp and their spirits high.
The band has a set list that's about 45 minutes long, and before every concert, papers with the song titles and lyrics are handed out to spark memories and encourage singing along. Accordionist Judy Wadsworth is the sunny emcee of the concerts, introducing each song with a little history.
In West Grove, the show glided smoothly down memory lane with catchy melodies like “Moonlight Serenade,” a polka medley, “It Had To Be You,” a bouncy blues medley, a gospel section, and a stirring finale of “Amazing Grace,” a salute to the Armed Forces, and “God Bless America.”
The musicians – each of whom has decades of experience – meshed very well under Aldworth's keyboard playing. There aren't any vocals, aside from Anita Alexander, who takes a break from playing violin to sing a stirring “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Give Me That Old-Time Religion.”
The band's configuration varies by whoever shows up at a particular concert, Aldworth explained. In West Grove, there were 13 musicians, but she's never sure what the balance of instrumentation might be. During the band member introductions, violinist Virginia Schawacker introduced her neighbor, John Jamison, who was sitting in the back, playing acoustic guitar with the band for the first time.
“I'm 59, so I'm a little bit young for this group, maybe,” Jamison said, smiling. “It's my first time here and I'm a little overwhelmed because I don't know some of these songs.” The band and audience laughed and clapped.
Becoming a member of the Grateful Alive is largely a matter of being invited and showing up to the once-a-week rehearsals or concerts. Nobody gets paid, which makes the Grateful Alive a very popular choice for cash-strapped senior groups, and for nursing homes that have to provide daily activities. Aldworth said the band has all the shows they can handle, so she's not soliciting new bookings right now, which is a great problem to have.
“I was a school teacher, and I retired in 2001,” Aldworth said after the concert. “I joined the band in 2005 or 2006, I guess. I have a musical background.” Playing music and listening to favorite melodies “does the same thing for us and the audience,” Aldworth said. “It's very stimulating.”
The band is based at the West Chester Senior Center, which provides a rehearsal space and a home base for the members, Aldworth said. The sudden addition of a guitarist didn't bother her. “That kind of happens a lot in this band,” she said with a grin.
For Schawacker, who played violin for the whole show without sheet music in front of her, the concerts are a great outlet for her musical diversity. She's a member of the Shaw Strings and the Chesco Pops, as well as the Rose Tree Pops, and she plays in the pit band for the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Chester County productions.
“My mother taught us kids to harmonize,” she explained after the concert. “So I play the harmony while everybody else is playing the melody.”
Keeping her musical skills sharp with so many different groups “is an opportunity to go a lot of places and meet a lot of people,” she said. The people she meets in nursing homes, particularly, were often quite well-known in their working careers. “Some of them have these incredible backgrounds,” she said.
Visiting hospitals and nursing homes where residents are often non-communicative is especially rewarding, she said. “Music is a gift, and you need to share it. We've gone and played at places for people who are not responding, but we start to play these oldies and by the end, they'll sing all of 'God Bless America,'” she said with a smile.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].