Northeast Times

A lifelong love of music

  • Sweet sounds: Alan Taylor plays the piano in his Dewees Street home. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • The retiree spends his free time playing with other musicians in duos, trios or quartets. Their various collaborations are part of a program called Adult Chamber Players, sponsored by the Settlement Music School.

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

You can reach at rrovner@aol.com.

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