When Alan Taylor first retired after 42 years working for Conrail, he looked forward to leisure time, but wasn’t sure how he’d use it.
“I thought I’d just relax,” the Northeast resident recalled.
How wrong he was. Instead of leisure, the Dewees Street resident has a calendar crammed with activities — all of them related to music.
Retirement has given him a chance to renew a longtime interest in classical music. Several times a week — or more — he gets together with other amateur serious musicians. In duos, trios or quartets, they play chamber music for the sheer love of it.
It’s all part of a program called Adult Chamber Players, sponsored by the Settlement Music School. These adult musicians convene at several of Settlement’s six branches. The school is well-known for its broad range of programs for youngsters and adults.
Taylor, a Northeast Philly resident for more than 50 years, first learned of the program 17 years ago from an article in the Northeast Times. The article struck a chord with Taylor, who had started piano lessons at age 6, and always had maintained an interest in music. But he didn’t have much chance to play during his busy working years.
Joining Adult Chamber Players gave him that chance. Taylor, now 77, is one of the most active and enthusiastic participants in the program.
On alternate Tuesday mornings, he’s at the Jenkintown branch of Settlement Music School, located in the Alverthorpe Estate on Meetinghouse Road. On the other Tuesdays, he plays chamber music at the Willow Grove Branch of Settlement. On those weeks, he also goes to the Wynnefield branch of Settlement on Thursday.
And every other Wednesday morning, the busy musician, who lives near Welsh Road and Roosevelt Boulevard, travels to Settlement’s South Philadelphia headquarters, where he first studied piano 63 years ago.
At each site, the chamber music sessions begin at 10 a.m. and continue until 1 p.m., with a 20-minute break for refreshments and socializing. When they arrive, the musicians are organized into small groups to play pieces designated for that session. The groups are changed for each session depending on the music to be played, and they receive emails in advance with the relevant information.
During each session, they’re free to use any available studios on the premises. They also have access to Settlement’s extensive library of ensemble music, where they can borrow musical scores for each session or take them home to practice for future sessions.
The musicians bring their own instruments, except for the piano, which is hardly portable. So Taylor has access to Settlement’s own grand pianos during his chamber music sessions.
The program is open to adult musicians who are intermediate or advanced. Most participants are seniors, because the morning hours are especially suited to retirees. And older age is no deterrent to these avid musicians.
For instance, Irene Harnitchek, who plays both violin and viola, is 81. Cellist Harold Coopersmith, a longtime participant, is 84. And violinist Sara Zallman is 96.
“She’s amazing,” Taylor said. ‘She comes in with a walker, but she rarely misses a session. She gives it her all. Her tone is still good, and she’s very knowledgeable about music.”
One participant is well past 80 and has rheumatoid arthritis.
“But she still plays,” Taylor said.
And so does Taylor — even when another musician might have been sidelined. Two and half years ago, he was treated for prostate cancer, with a total of 44 radiation treatments.
“And I didn’t miss a single session,” he reported. “I purposely scheduled the treatments for after the sessions end.”
Indeed, music-making during this time was even more important. Instead of simply awaiting his treatments, he sat at the grand piano and joined with cellists, violinists or violists to play works by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn and others.
For the most part, the musicians play on their own, but sometimes a coach will sit in.
One such coach is Marka Kasker-Simmons, the program coordinator.
She matches up the chamber groups and often sits in with different groups to give them help. (For information about the program, call her at 215-320-2698.)
She’s played often with Taylor and has high praise for him.
“He’s terrific — a wonderful addition to our program,” she said. “He’s a very expressive player, full of enthusiasm.”
Taylor’s chamber music activities now extend well beyond the scheduled sessions. He often gets together with other musicians who arrange to meet on their own, either at the Jenkintown branch or in each other’s homes. Recently, Taylor and three others convened at his home in the morning. That same afternoon, he and cellist Gordon Fink, a retired pathologist, played duets also at his home.
The sessions usually last for three or even four hours.
“And as soon as they end, we make a date for the next time,” Taylor said.
A typical week for him involves at least five music sessions. But during one especially busy musical week recently, his schedule included 10 different sessions.
Meeting other musicians who share his love of music has been a highlight.
“I’ve gotten to know many people I never would have met except for this program,” Taylor said. “It’s been a great experience.”
The experience has also given him a new appreciation for chamber music. Previously, his main interest was orchestral music.
“I didn’t find chamber music especially exciting,” he admits. “But I was so wrong. When we play especially well, it’s like a rush of adrenalin, a real high. I come out of those sessions feeling so buoyant.”
He practices for his chamber music sessions at home. A widower, he’s lived in the same home for 50 years. And with three pianos, there’s plenty of opportunity for music-making. The upright (which he’s had since age 6) and spinet are in the recreation room, allowing him to play two-piano pieces with musician friends. And in the living room is a grand piano.
It was his participation in Adult Chamber Players that led to this proud possession.
“I was playing on this marvelous grand piano at Settlement, and I felt that now I was entitled to have one at home, too,” Taylor said.
Of course, his life in retirement does involve other activities besides music.
The versatile musician is an avid sports fan and an animal and bird lover, and the household includes a huge bird cage with 31 birds, including finches and parakeets.
ldquo;They get even louder whenever they hear the music,” he reported.
But music is the major focus of his life, a source of great pleasure and satisfaction. He thinks it may even be a key to staying young.
“The musicians I’ve met are all so youthful and vital,” he says. “They’re full of enthusiasm and energy. It’s the music which keeps them young.”
That’s certainly true for Taylor. It’s been almost 20 years since he first joined Adult Chamber Players. And he still marvels at how it changed his life.
“If I hadn’t read that newspaper article, I might be sitting around watching TV all day,” he says. “This has given me a whole new outlook on life.” ••
For more information on Settlement Music School and its six branches, call 215-320-2600 or visit smsmusic.org