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Traveling amateur organists entertain fellow seniors with oldies music

| Sunday, April 26, 2015, 11:12 p.m.
New Sparks of Life organ group member Jo Hursh of Hempfield plays polka music on the group's organ as fellow group member Larry Apone of Latrobe dances with Stone Brook Manor resident Dora Sethman during a visit to the Personal Care facility on Saturday, Aprl 11, 2015 in Manor. The musical group of senior citizens from around Westmoreland County travel to area senior citizen homes to entertain residents.
Barry Reeger | Trib Total Media
New Sparks of Life organ group member Jo Hursh of Hempfield plays polka music on the group's organ as fellow group member Larry Apone of Latrobe dances with Stone Brook Manor resident Dora Sethman during a visit to the Personal Care facility on Saturday, Aprl 11, 2015 in Manor. The musical group of senior citizens from around Westmoreland County travel to area senior citizen homes to entertain residents.
New Sparks of Life organ group member Jo Hursh of Hempfield dances with Stone Brook Manor resident Angie Marchionna during a visit to the Personal Care facility on Saturday, Aprl 11, 2015 in Manor. The musical group of senior citizens from around Westmoreland County travel to area senior citizen homes to entertain residents.
Barry Reeger | Trib Total Media
New Sparks of Life organ group member Jo Hursh of Hempfield dances with Stone Brook Manor resident Angie Marchionna during a visit to the Personal Care facility on Saturday, Aprl 11, 2015 in Manor. The musical group of senior citizens from around Westmoreland County travel to area senior citizen homes to entertain residents.
New Sparks of Life organ group member Pat Pardus of Greensburg, who wears hearing aids and has arthritis in both hands, plays the organ during a visit to Stone Brook Manor Personal Care facility on Saturday, Aprl 11, 2015 in Manor. The musical group of senior citizens from around Westmoreland County travel to area senior citizen homes to entertain residents.
Barry Reeger | Trib Total Media
New Sparks of Life organ group member Pat Pardus of Greensburg, who wears hearing aids and has arthritis in both hands, plays the organ during a visit to Stone Brook Manor Personal Care facility on Saturday, Aprl 11, 2015 in Manor. The musical group of senior citizens from around Westmoreland County travel to area senior citizen homes to entertain residents.

Pat Pardus wears hearing aids and has arthritis, but that doesn't stop her from joining a group of amateur organists who play just about every Saturday at senior centers and nursing homes from Ligonier to Irwin.

“I don't know how bad the arthritis is going to get. As long as my fingers move, I'll keep playing,” Pardus, 73, of Greensburg said recently as the group performed at Stonebrook Manor, an assisted living facility near Harrison City. “I love to play. I enjoy being with all the people. It brightens their day, makes them happy.”

Pardus, who worked for 14 years as a nurse's aide at St. Anne Home in Greensburg, plays with the New Sparks of L.I.F.E., which uses the acronym for “Lowrey is Fun and Easy.” The group purchased a Lowrey Holiday Classic organ so members could travel to gigs.

The spirited group's members range in age from 64 to 88 and usually tailor their song selections to the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

”The music we play is from their comfort zone,” said Robert Garris, 71, of Greensburg, the group's president. “It gives them something to relate to.”

Six to eight members take turns performing two to three selections each during a show that lasts about 90 minutes.

There are exceptions to the set list.

“We were playing a few weeks ago and a woman said, ‘Can you please play something other than the '30s, '40s and '50s? We like rock n' roll.' So I played ‘Rockin' Robin,' ” Jo Hursh said. The Bobby Day hit from 1958 was a crowd pleaser.

Regardless of genre, the audience rarely sits still, moving their feet and hands, or dancing to the rhythms of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, or Neil Diamond and Elvis Presley.

Several Stonebrook residents danced with members of the group as others took their turns performing. Those who stayed in their chairs didn't sit still.

“This is our most favorite place,” said Hursh, who at 64 is the youngest of the group and points out that she's the only one who still has a 9-to-5 job.

“The people are like family. They love us, and we love them,” she said.

The group will play at Stone-brook 12 times this year.

Hursh's husband, Jim, one of three “roadies” who help wheel the 300-pound organ and other equipment to and from its transport trailer, enjoys the music and the people.

“Jo got a guy at an Alzheimer's unit to dance. ... The nurses said it was the first time in five years that he interacted with anyone,” he said.

“Music touches people,” Jo Hursh said.

It's a two-way street, according to experts.

Research suggests that music can help improve the well-being of those in nursing homes and the performers, said Julene K. Johnson, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco Institute for Health & Aging and its Center for Aging in Diverse Communities.

“It's wonderful that this group of organists took it upon themselves to share the king of instruments with (people) in a local nursing home,” said Johnson, the principal investigator in a new research study examining whether singing in a community choir is a cost-effective way to promote health and well-being among older adults.

“There is often a paucity of music and other arts at places like nursing homes. It would be wonderful to see more music events like this, and from persons of all ages, in assisted living environments,” she said.

For Stonebrook Manor residents like Dora Sethman, the visits “make our week.”

“We can't wait until they get back,” said Sethman, who will turn 96 in May. “We love them here.”

When people listen to music, multiple areas of their brains are engaged and active, researchers said. Music can reduce stress, help decrease anxiety, improve cardiovascular health and enhance moods.

Garris turned to the organ — Mozart dubbed it “the King of Instruments” — for his health.

“I used to have high blood pressure real bad and they told me playing a musical instrument tends to relax you,” he said.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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