It was 9 a.m. on a recent Wednesday when the musicians began straggling into the recreation hall at The Church of St. Jude in Wantagh. Clutching their instruments, they stopped and chatted before rehearsal. By 9:30, they were seated and ready for the conductor's cue. As his baton rhythmically tapped the air, the symphonic sound of the Senior Pops Orchestra of Long Island filled the cavernous room.
Eleven months of the year, every Wednesday is rehearsal day for the orchestra, a volunteer group with 60 members who play about a dozen free concerts a year at various Long Island parks.
After recent setbacks, the group is back on track, overcoming the financial and emotional impact of a fire in December that destroyed their longtime rehearsal site, Sweet Hollow Hall at West Hills County Park in Melville. Losses estimated at $43,000 included the group's inventory of percussion instruments, a digital piano and musical arrangements dating to 1979. Despite rewards offered by Suffolk police, no arrests have been made in the arson fire.
"Thank the Lord for insurance," which covered the loss, says Carole Reinwald, 56, treasurer for Senior Pops. The group, established 34 years ago, relies on sponsorships, grants and audience donations to keep the orchestra afloat.
It's name, Senior Pops Orchestra, is "a misnomer," says Stephen Michael Smith, 59, of Manhattan and Danbury, Conn., its Julliard-trained director since 2010 and the only paid member. "It's 'senior' in average age but more like a master's orchestra for people who've been around for a while and know their stuff."
Most members are retired music teachers and musicians, but there's also a smattering of business owners and other professionals. Ages range from 20-something to octogenarian. For the most part, turnover is low, generally driven by relocation or death -- or, in the case of one college student, the demands of school.
In addition to playing professional-level music, membership comes with a priceless bonus: a supportive community, says Smith. The musicians "check in with each other, let people know at rehearsals if someone is sick, and they watch out for each other."
CREATIVITY AS A HEALTH AID
In many ways, groups like Senior Pops can help retirees retain a quality of life, according to Tobi Abramson, director of the Center for Gerontology and Geriatrics at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury and immediate past-president of the Washington, D.C.-headquartered National Center for Creative Aging.
Older adults "engaged in creative activities," including music, the visual arts or community theater, tend to have "better health, fewer doctor visits, less medication and better mental health," Abramson says. "It's about the music that brings them together, but it's the community that keeps them there."
Evelyn Carlin, a cellist, applauds the orchestra for its support after her husband died in 1991. "It saved my life and became a part of my social life," says the Wantagh resident. Carlin declined to give her age but said she holds the distinction of being with the orchestra the longest -- 30 years.
Many of the musicians had music lessons as children or attended a high school that required taking up an instrument. Through the years, they earned a living -- or scored some extra cash -- playing at weddings, bar mitzvahs and proms. Some played in clubs, theaters and hotels that formed the Catskills' "Borscht Belt."
Although Senior Pops performs light classical pieces, show tunes, big band music and opera, members have earned their stripes playing in a wide range of musical groups, including jazz, Klezmer, rock and roll and Army bands.
The orchestra uses its website, seniorpops.org, to attract new members, but usually, newcomers are recommended by friends or colleagues who are established Senior Pops players. Although it's a volunteer group, there are professional rules: Musicians who know they'll miss a concert are required to secure a replacement for themselves; subbing for someone is how many players get their start with the orchestra.
"It's accepted that if you're recommended, then you're a good musician." says Leonard Apicella, 77, an East Islip resident and retired music teacher who joined 13 years ago and is the group's president.
TIME TO 'DO WHAT YOU WANT'
Their passion for playing unabated, many Senior Pops musicians also perform with other groups, including Island Symphony Orchestra, Bay Area Symphony Orchestra, The Band of Long Island and the Massapequa Philharmonic.
"When you're working, you don't have the time to do these things," says Apicella, who plays the French horn in five orchestras. "Retirement gives you the opportunity to live for yourself and do what you want to do."
For some Senior Pops members, music isn't just a nicety in their lives, it's a necessity. "Music is my soul and life, an escape from the business of the day," says Judy Sherman, 48, of East Islip resident, who plays the flute and piccolo. "When I'm having a particularly stressful day, music allows me to refocus and come back to work with a fresh mind." A 14-year veteran of the orchestra and mother of a son, 14, and daughter, 19, Sherman also performs with Farmingdale Village Pops. In her working hours, she manages a Bohemia-based counseling practice, where she is also a certified hypnotist.
The multigenerational aspect of the orchestra adds to the players' enjoyment. Sherman says she appreciates hearing older members' stories about their "years of amazing experience and years of refining their own talents."
Allan Sperber, 71, a retired computer systems director from Woodbury and the orchestra's principal clarinetist, says the younger members "bring a sense of vitality to the organization."
Each March for more than a decade, that intergenerational aspect is expanded when the Senior Pops and Huntington High School orchestras perform together. "It's fantastic," says Apicella. "We always enjoy that."
Senior Pops also strikes a chord with audiences. Since 2008, the Town of Hempstead has booked the orchestra at Lido Beach Town Park in July for its annual Showcase Week. The concert typically draws about 600 people.
"The seniors love to hear the music, because it brings back memories of when they grew up," says Todd Goldfarb, deputy commissioner of the town's Department of Senior Enrichment. "They sing along, and afterwards, we get a multitude of seniors asking us to please have them back next year."
One fan is Ann Hutnick, 66, a retired teacher from East Islip, who has attended three Senior Pops concerts for "the beautiful music that you recognize and that makes you feel so comfortable."
Smith says he is not only proud of the orchestra's sound but inspired by the players who produce it. "I think they serve as an example for their friends and an inspiration for the rest of us coming up the line," he says. "The social aspect is a big part and an important part of it, and there's a real sense of belonging and pride in being part of the orchestra."
SCHEDULE OF FREE CONCERTS
Here's a schedule of free concerts by the Senior Pops Orchestra of Long Island for the remaining year. For more information call 516-414-1831 or visit seniorpops.org.
June 30, 2 p.m.
Gardiner's County Park, Montauk Highway, West Bay Shore
July 8, 1 p.m.
Lido Beach Town Park, 630 Lido Blvd., Lido Beach
Sept. 22, 2 p.m.
Suffolk County Community College, Van Nostrand Theatre, Crooked Hill Road, Brentwood
Dec. 22, 2 p.m.
Brookside School, 1260 Meadowbrook Rd., North Merrick