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Making a Joyful Noise: Senior Center Guitar and Ukulele Group

By Jennifer Russo

Whether a song is from the 1760’s, 1920’s or 2000’s, all music is influenced by other decades and genres, events that have taken place in history and the culture of the moment. It makes an imprint one way or another on time. Music is a powerful thing – studies have shown that it can improve memory, help heal grief, improve overall brain function, and stabilize heart rate. Playing an instrument also maintains motor skills, dexterity and reaction time. What’s more, it has the ability to bring people together in a way that nothing else can do in quite the same way.

The Bellingham Senior Center has been offering seniors (55+) the opportunity to do just that. It began when Janet Szymanski and Karen Palmer met at Larry Bee’s, a local music school and store right here in Bellingham. The two got to talking about their love of playing instruments and how they might get more people who loved music to come together. 

“I discussed the idea with Josie, the center’s activities director, and she thought it was a great way for senior musicians to socialize,” says Janet, an ESL teacher from Blackstone who believes music is a universal language.  

“So, we put out a notice and several people were excited to help and start this journey.”  

It has become a popular weekly event for those who want to spend some time playing and singing songs. All levels of musicianship are welcome, and those who are well-versed in guitar or ukulele are happy to share how to play basic chords.

“After speaking with Janet, I really thought this would be a lot of fun, and it sure has been,” says Karen Palmer, a vibrant ukulele player from Rhode Island.

It was a fun visit on a recent Monday to learn more about what the group does. Three guitarists, two ukulele players and a singer were there and though some active members were missing due to other conflicts, the room was filled with sound. The range of songs played was impressive, with folk songs like Worried Man Blues, to patriotic standards such as This Land is Your Land, and even more modern tunes such as I Walk the Line, made famous by Johnny Cash.

The musicians were just as diverse as the music was, and it was a pleasure to learn more about them.

George Perron, a retired Marine and Korean War veteran originally from Franklin, shared that he is excited to see what other songs they can try out, and is working on nailing the chords of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the style of IZ Kamakawiwo’ole.  

Ken Bamberry of Franklin offered not only his guitar skills, but some exceptionally well-timed comebacks to some of the witty banter being thrown about. Word has it that he is quite the pool shark, too. 

Frank “Rocco” Catrambone stayed pretty quiet over in the corner, but his guitar talent spoke for itself, and he was able to pick up new selections on a whim and happily riffed away in between songs while people got their music together.

Linda Trudeau, a lovely singer who has lived in Bellingham her whole life, shared her history of singing lead at Bellingham High School, leading a church choir, and running the Bellingham Arts Center for many years.

Not present were regular attendees Steve Rivet, who plays a 12-string guitar and has helped greatly with getting others onboard, and MingMing He, a Council on Aging member that has been playing piano since she was a child in China, but really wanted to learn to play with others in a group.

Once the group is even more established, they are hoping to lead some sing-a-longs for holidays. In the meantime, they welcome anyone 55+ who has an interest in playing an instrument or singing to join them on Monday mornings. For more information about the group, please call the Bellingham Senior Center at (508) 966-0398.

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