LI teen's nonprofit brings music to seniors

Nikki Egna of Port Washington, founder for the Nikki Egna of Port Washington, founder for the Piano for Patients program, began with volunteers from her temple. (Feb. 24, 2013) Photo Credit: Maria Boyadjieva

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Nikki Egna had been taking piano lessons for only two years, but she understood keenly what a shame it was to see a baby grand piano go unused in a room full of people.

She found herself in that situation one evening in 2010 at the Sands Point Center for Health and Rehabilitation in Port Washington, where she was attending a dinner with other volunteers from her temple.

But Egna, who was 15 at the time, was too nervous to get up and play. "I got home, and I kept thinking about it," she recalled. "I felt guilty about not taking that opportunity."

The next week Egna, of Port Washington, returned to the nursing home with a friend, sat down at the piano and played, albeit clumsily.

"That was my first time playing outside my own living room," she said. "I messed up everything, but they still liked it. I looked around, and they were enjoying it."

What Egna experienced that night propelled her to want to do something greater. She began to play at Sands Point more often and enlisted her musically inclined friends to join her. Over the past two years, Egna, now 17, became the ringleader of a group of 75 high school students who regularly perform music at six nursing homes and senior living facilities around Long Island.

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Egna's goal for Piano for Patients, a registered nonprofit, is to recruit 1,000 students and to form partnerships with 150 facilities in the next couple of years.

As participants move on to college, she hopes they'll bring Piano for Patients with them.

"My goal is to make this a nationwide organization," she said.

 

'It's wonderful of them'

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On a recent Sunday afternoon, four of Egna's classmates at Port Washington's Paul D. Schreiber High School joined her at a Roslyn senior living facility.

In a sun-splashed parlor at the Atria on Roslyn Harbor, Egna stood at a microphone and introduced each of her companions.

"Natasha is going to play a Beethoven sonata in C-minor," Egna announced sweetly and like a practiced public speaker, as she referred to Natasha Talukdar, 17, of Port Washington. "Natasha has been invited to play at Carnegie Hall. Isn't that wonderful?"

Nearly 60 residents sat around the room, some sipping their drinks and chatting. But as Talukdar's fingers hit the keys and the first notes filled the room, a quiet settled on the audience, save for a few whispers, including one woman who asked, "These are high schoolers?"

Over the next 90 minutes, the students took turns at the piano, and one sang. They performed separately and together, playing music that was from the audience's generation and their own. On other occasions, the group -- which performs mostly on Sundays but occasionally plays other days of the week -- is also joined by a violinist.

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"It's remembrance," said Atria resident David Tratenberg, 88, who yelled out "No, no, more!" when Egna announced the end of the show. "Some of the things they played were popular in my time, and to see these kids play it, it's wonderful of them."

Stefanie Shulman, the engage-life director at the Atria, said the program exposes residents to the arts and to a younger generation.

"I think it's nostalgic. It's motivating," she said. "There's nothing like the energy of young people; it's infectious."

 

Nonprofit grows

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Egna's parents thought Piano for Patients would be a fleeting passion. After all, Egna -- who admits her interest was fueled by wanting to learn the piano-ballad theme to the popular "Twilight" movies -- hadn't been playing that long.

But it stuck, and since registering her organization as a 501(c)(3) charity last September, Egna has enlisted a board of directors made up of local business leaders, created a scholarship program to entice student participation, and organized a structure -- based on location leaders for each facility -- that will enable the organization to grow. Egna also has managed to get a piano donated to one of the facilities the group visits, and to get the Sands Point piano tuned for free.

"She's on a mission," said her mother, Lauren Egna. "These kids are so talented, and they just donate their time. As a student, there's so little free time left, so to take two to three hours out of the weekend, it's really something."

Karen Toback, director of recreation at the Sands Point facility, said Piano for Patients brings "so much life into the walls of the nursing home.

"It's the fact that the young people show the residents so much reverence and respect," she said. "The generations can connect through music."

Egna is not sure where she'll attend college next year, but she said Piano for Patients will be part of her life wherever she ends up.

"When you end a show and the residents come up to you and their reaction is, 'You made my day,' " she said, "you know you're making a big difference."

 

Location leaders

Nikki Egna is recruiting student location leaders to help grow Piano for Patients (pianoforpatients.org).

Location leaders will recruit performers, promote Piano for Patients in his or her school and organize performances at local hospitals, nursing homes or senior living facilities.

The volunteer position is a vital part of Piano for Patients, Egna said.

As the organization's scholarship and awards element develops, location leaders who have held the position for at least one school year will be eligible for the scholarship, and recipients for other awards will be selected by location leaders and approved by the president of Piano for Patients.

For more information, contact Egna at nikkiegna@pianoforpatients.org

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