This article appeared in the Oct. 24, 2008 Jewish Advocate.


Jewish musicians entertain elders:
Senior venues a top choice for area players

Susie Davidson
Special to the Advocate

While many musicians dream of playing to packed stadiums of fans, some dedicated musicians play lesser-known venues on the senior living circuit throughout the country. The audience is popular with many Jewish musicians and sometimes their primary focus.

The crowd can pose many challenges but also can be more rewarding. The players hail from many backgrounds and perform many styles. But they all seem motivated by a desire to do good, to entertain and even comfort.

Ellen Epstein takes this to heart as a hospice volunteer with her Music for Healing and Transition Program, a course of study she founded in 2005. Grads, who intern at area hospitals, receive Certified Music Practitioner degrees. A former teacher, counselor and guitar teacher, Epstein’s repertoire of showtunes, standards, classical and pop stems from her upbringing. “Informal singing was an ever-present accompaniment to car rides, gatherings, parties, and activities,” she said. Her father was in a singing troupe, and she began playing guitar at 12.

“Therapeutic Music is all about the music, and the person receiving it. I am just a conduit, a way for the positive power of music to enter the room,” she says, noting that all sessions are individualized. “People sometimes ask if I feel depleted by this work, but it's the opposite - it feeds me on a very deep level,” she said. Epstein often draws on old Jewish and Yiddish melodies, and says they are soothing to patients whether they’re Jewish or not. “There's something inherently healing about those songs.  Plus I always feel like my Grandma Diana is with me when I sing them,” she said.

British/Israeli pianist Gilad Barkan recalls his first performance at a nursing home in Haifa. “My paternal grandmother, Sarah, was in the audience, and from the response, I felt that I gave something to them and my grandmother, which was a good feeling,” he said. Barkan has also done “outreach” concerts through the Brookline Music School, where he teaches. “Older folk have an appreciation for older tunes - the kind jazz musicians like to play - and it's fun to be able to share that and connect with those who tend to look at life with less haste, and a wink in the eye,” he said.

For at least one well-known musician, performing for seniors is a fulfilling change from larger-scaled events. Fred Lipsius, who began playing the clarinet at age 9 in the Bronx, and sax and piano in junior and high school, was an original saxophonist, pianist and arranger for the renowned jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat and Tears. While with the group from 1967 to 1971, he won nine Gold Records plus a Grammy for his arrangement of “Spinning Wheel.” He also arranged “Hi-De-Ho” and co-arranged “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.” A top ten alto sax player in both the Downbeat and Playboy jazz polls, he now teaches at Berklee College of Music, where he studied from 1961-62.

Lipsius' heart is as big as the open end of his instrument. Over the past several years, he's been playing sax and piano and sharing stories with residents at Boston-area nursing homes, mental hospitals and senior living centers. “It's been both rewarding and healing for me,” he says. “I usually return home with a feeling of well-being and deep sense of purpose.”

In 2000, he thought about playing saxophone or piano for children with cancer. “But I didn't know what kind of music young kids would enjoy,” he told the Advocate. “I also thought my sax might be too loud for them in their hospital room.” A year later, he still felt the need to play at nursing homes or hospitals. “So, while walking with my wife one day, I finally went into a nursing home in Brookline, which happened to be almost directly across from where we previously lived,” he said. “I met the activities person and set a day to perform the next week. I played and had a great time. Since then, I've performed about 90 times at places like that in and around the Boston area,” he said.

At one show, he played Gershwin's "I've Got Rhythm" in a very fast, improvised tempo, Charlie Parker style, and ended with the same abruptness. The audience loved it, but one man had fallen asleep and was awakened by the resident next to him. It’s a common occurrence, yet Lipsius and other performers take it in good humor, not as a critique!

Dr. Dreidle (Jonathan "Chief" Shulman) follows a comedic approach. Shulman, the founder of Rhythm Connections, cites his role as “head Jew in charge, lyrics, vocals, keys, drums, percussion, humor and antics.” Alone or with “Bix (Jon Buchsbaum), Tommy the Swami Osuna and DJ GoyBoy (Mark "Mudpuppy" Mandica), he conducts interactive musical programs at senior living centers. Shulman raps improvised lyrics about Jewish holidays and customs, playing a wide variety of instruments and percussion. His upcoming "Judaica Hip Hop” CD, "Holiday Rhymes for Modern Times” will feature Jewish blues pianist David Maxwell and bassist Shimon Benshir of the Israeli ensemble Bustam Abraham.

Mixing social history with the American songbook is local cabaret singer Bobbi Carrey. An MBA and former Fidelity Investments exec, she appeared in her native Teaneck, N.J. area JCC’s “South Pacific,” and did a theatrical Haftorah at her bat mitzvah. Carrey has performed at numerous senior centers, as well as Learning in Retirement programs at her alma mater Tufts, and UMass Boston.

“My music is so evocative of a time past, that everyone will come up and tell stories and reminisce,” she said. “Occasionally the Alzheimer patients have attended and they will sing every word of every Berlin song. For me, it’s been an opportunity to hone my craft, do what I love, and also make a contribution to the community.”