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Music clubs keep their minds fine-tuned

Jo Varano, 89, cuts a rug while the

Jo Varano, 89, cuts a rug while the Leisure Village Band plays at Leisure Village in Ridge. (Oct. 3, 2013) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

At Leisure Village in Ridge, Carl Abruzzo, 74, counts off the beat, launching the retirement community's 14-piece big band into "All of Me," the jazz classic written eight years before he was born.

Meanwhile, some 50 miles west, several dozen well-dressed women -- and a sprinkling of men -- are celebrating a special occasion -- the 100th anniversary of what has evolved into the Friday Woodmere Music Club (classicalmusicians, started in 1913 by a small group of talented women who enjoyed playing classical music.

The two groups also are miles apart in their music choices. But while the Friday club members may prefer Bach and Beethoven -- and the Leisure Village Band, the Dorseys and the Duke (Ellington, of course!) -- they all have a serious devotion to music. And experts say that hits the right note for brain activity in all generations.

"Even though music has been around for as long as people have been humming or making some sort of rhythmic motions, just in this century, we're really now starting to be able, with neuroradiology, to be seeing its impact," says Dr. Lory Bright-Long, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the Geriatric Psychiatry Fellowship at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. "We've always thought music was a good idea, but now we know why."

Bright-Long, who, at 62, is a Suzuki violin student, says studies have shown that music stimulates dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure. "The point is that people can really have a very positive kind of addiction to music," she says. Music is a "whole brain activity. You really do work your brain when you're involved in music on any level -- the more we use it, the more synapses we develop. ... I think that it is very important for the healthy aging brain."

Members of the Friday club definitely have music on their minds. "They provided the basis of our music collection" through donations, says Susan de Sciora, director of the Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library. The group meets at members' homes and at the library, putting on concerts there every few months "They're really committed to bringing classical music to the community," de Sciora adds.

The women also are committed to the group. "We all have our own friends, but being a member of this music club is something special," says Friday's co-president Susan Taras of Jericho, 72, a retired piano teacher who's been in the club 30 years. "When we come together and play music, the bonds that exist give you a feeling like no other."


Launching careers

Since 1971, the club's Young Artists Competition, held every two years, has helped launch careers of musicians such as Lynbrook concert pianist and teacher Jeffrey Biegel, pianist Michael Brown and Metropolitan Opera soprano Dawn Upshaw.

"It's something we're very proud of," says co-president Eleanor Nelson, 84, of West Hempstead, a pianist who retired two years ago after a teaching career at Juilliard, and still performs professionally.

Biegel says he was 13 or 14 years old when he won second place in the competition. "I mostly remember the two ladies who made me feel more relaxed in what was a heart-thumping, nervous situation: Louise Masi and the late Una Hadley," says Biegel, 52. "They ran the competition smoothly, and the best part was receiving jury member comments afterward." He has since served on its juries.

At the monthly meetings, members sing, perform on piano and sometimes violin (one member even played the marimbas). The group also conducts informal workshops at which prospective members are invited to try out for the club. "The performances are on a high level," Taras says.

The club, always "a close-knit group," says Taras, is aging and shrinking -- down to about 30 members from 45. A number have died.

Few are taking their places. "Women in their 30s and 40s are working full time, and they can't participate," Nelson says.

Anne Tedesco, 62, of Malverne, the club's youngest member, says she's been coming for 38 years but can't attend often because of her demanding career as a concert pianist and adjunct professor of music at St. John's University.

The club has been a place to perform and to listen, and friendships run deep. Azary Messerer, 74, of Bay Ridge, a former Refusenik -- a Jew barred from leaving the Soviet Union -- says club members welcomed him in 1981 after he finally was allowed to emigrate. "The club became, for me, the symbol of what is best in America," he says.

At the club's anniversary celebration in June, Messerer played a mazurka in memory of his friend Ruth Haber of Hewlett, the club's historian, who died in May at the age of 86.

"The loss of Ruth Haber was monumental to the club," says Nelson. When Nelson had surgery seven years ago and couldn't leave her house to find a dress for her granddaughter's wedding, Haber brought a selection for her to try on. "How many people would think of doing something like that?" says Nelson.

In Haber's honor, her family was invited to the anniversary. Her daughter, Lynn Peteroy, 61, of Oceanside, says the family is considering donating a Young Artists Competition grant in her mother's memory.

"As a little girl, I thought all of the moms who weren't working could play Bach and Chopin," Peteroy says. "They had all this wonderful talent, and they found each other.

"And when my mother was in hospice, they were flowing in," she says. "One of the members came and sang 'Brahms Lullaby' to her."


'They don't want us to stop'

At Leisure Village, a condominium complex with 1,500 units for residents 55 and older, the tempo differs from selections of the Friday club, but the satisfaction linked to music is the same. Members of the community's band play a two-hour concert for residents most Thursday afternoons, without intermission.

"They don't want us to stop," says band co-president Abruzzo, who sings with the band in a Satchmo growl. On Fridays, they repeat the performance at Leisure Knoll, a sister community across the road.

The beat is hopping as Abruzzo brings the band into the '50s with the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love."

Newlyweds Joy and Gerry McDonough, 71 and 77, get up to Lindy; later, Laurel Blackmore takes Joy for a spin in the center of the meeting room.

"Whenever they play, I'm here listening to them," says Blackmore, 76, who retired from his furniture reupholstering business. "It gives me peace and comfort."

Not to mention, a little exercise.

Then Jo Varano, 89, catches every eye as she does a solo turn, twisting languidly to the beat. "It comes naturally," she says after applause, eyes shining at the attention.

Like the Friday club members, many in the Leisure Village Band have been pros -- and some still are. Bill Wilkinson, 82, of Manorville, a retired construction engineer who plays trumpet, leads Bill Wilkinson & the Long Island Sound Swing Band, a group that performs across the Island.


Playing with big names

Pat De Rosa, 91, of Middle Island, who taught music in the South Huntington School District, plays sax, clarinet, flute and oboe. As a young man, he played in Manhattan's Latin Quarter with big names like Lionel Hampton, and he still gets pleasure from playing. "When I look out into the audience and see people smiling or getting up to dance, it makes your day -- you think, 'I've done something today that meant something,'" he says.

A few years ago, band co-president Terry Engel, 76, and Abruzzo took over the band and expanded it from three performers to its current size of 13 to 15. Engel plays piano, sings and also directs The Happy Wanderers, the 25- to 30-voice Leisure Village choral group that performs at nursing homes several times a month.

A widow when she moved to Leisure Village, Engel found that music helped romance bloom -- she's now married to Tom Engel, the band's sound man. "We're known as T and T," she says with a smile.

Then there's John Halpin -- at 97, Leisure Village Band's oldest member -- a hypnotist known for working with Mike Tyson for 15 years to help the fighter win boxing titles. He's also in the Long Island Banjo Society. "It keeps me alive," Halpin says.

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