Senior facilities welcome live-in Peabody students

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Embedded in senior living facilities, Peabody Conservatory students hone their craft, charm the residents.

At the intersection of two corridors in the main building at Broadmead, the retirement community in Cockeysville, a small seating area with a few traditional-style chairs and a display case might not normally warrant a second glance.

But on a recent afternoon, passersby slowed their pace, drawn to the sight of unusual object added to the space — an elegant harp — and the richly resonant sound emerging from it.

A handful of residents sat down to watch and listen as Peggy Houng played. They seemed particularly taken with her account of the atmospheric "Oriental Dance" by Aram Khachaturian, which included periodic percussive tapping on the side of the instrument. Smiles broke out when the harpist started gently phrased accounts of the Beatles' "And I Love Her" and "Yesterday."

"Feel free to sing along if you'd like," Houng said before launching into "Hey, Jude." A listener replied with a laugh: "I'd ruin it."

Since midsummer, Houng has lived at Broadmead as a participant in the Peabody Institute Musician-in-Residence project. In exchange for free housing, she gives two performances and three open practice sessions each week. The harpist, who is working on her Graduate Performance Diploma at Peabody, also plays for residents unable to leave their rooms.

Keeping a similar schedule at another senior living facility is classical guitarist and composer Julien Xuereb, the first of Peabody's two musicians-in-residence. He's now in his second year at Springwell in the Mount Washington neighborhood. (Both students visit the Peabody campus weekly, too.)

The embed concept is likely to expand to two more places next year.

"I think it's a great project that involves community engagement and audience development," said Fred Bronstein, dean of Peabody. "To me, it's part of the larger picture of taking significant steps to augment the training and experience all of our students get, so they can develop the skills they need and are going to want when they get out into work force."

Springwell director and co-owner Phil Golden heard of a resident musician project at a retirement community in California and thought something like that would be a natural for his.

"There have been studies that show the benefits of music on mental clarity and physical movement," Golden said. "Our residents love music. We feel the more music, the better."

Golden contacted Peabody with the offer of a free apartment to a student in exchange for music-making at the facility.

"A handful applied," Golden said. "We were looking not only for a gifted musician, but for the right personality type, someone who could connect with residents. We chose Julien, who has exceeded all our expectations, and our expectations were high."

The French-born Xuereb, 27, earned his master's degree in guitar and pedagogy at Peabody. He's now on track for a Graduate Performance Diploma from the conservatory.

"This program fits well with the diploma, since it's all about performing," said Xuereb, who performs in the Springwell lobby and other spots. He provides music for a happy hour once a month as well.

"I knew that one way I could improve was to play in front of an audience a lot, and now I have my audience," the guitarist said. "I used to practice technique in my room, but the activities director said I should do that downstairs in the lobby, too. I thought I'd look like an idiot, but people actually like seeing me practice, even when I'm just playing scales."

Xuereb enjoyed his first year at Springwell so much that he didn't just sign up for a second — he also set about making the experience possible elsewhere for other Peabody students. He received one of the Dean's Incentive Grants — awarded to student- or faculty-generated projects by Bronstein — to expand the residence program.

"I knocked on other retirement center doors," Xuereb said. "I think some people heard my French accent and thought it was a scam. One place expressed interest."

That place was Broadmead. Like at Springwell, live music is often heard there, but normally from visiting artists. The concept of a live-in musician added a fresh angle. Xuereb organized a system to screen applicants and choose finalists, who each played a 20-minute concert at Broadmead and met with staff and residents.

"In the end, Peggy was the resounding choice," said Stacey Young, director of lifestyle and dementia programs at Broadmead. "We know how important music is for our residents. We have been blessed with having a lot of instruments played here, but not a lot of harps."

For the 24-year-old Houng, who is from Burtonsville, the opportunity to live at Broadmead turned out to be doubly enticing. In addition to earning an undergraduate degree in harp performance at Peabody and a master's in harp performance at Indiana University, she earned a bachelor's in cognitive science at the Johns Hopkins University (Peabody is part of Johns Hopkins).

"I'm really interested in music therapy," Houng said, "and now I get to combine music and therapy. I've met people with Alzheimer's and dementia here at Broadmead, and I can see that my music has a positive effect on them."

The bulk of Houng's interactions at Broadmead are with residents who catch her performances at the community center. People are also welcome to sit in when she practices.

"Musicians are used to being shut up four to five hours a day and never seeing anyone," Houng said. "But here, I'm not in a soundproof practice room playing only for myself. That is a really good thing. But I feel guilty making people hear the same phrase five times in a row."

Broadmead resident Penny Partlow doesn't mind a bit.

"I settled down in a big, comfortable chair in the lounge and listened to her practice the Khachaturian piece for two straight hours," Partlow, 85, said. "She was still practicing when I left. I luxuriate in listening to her, even if she goes over the same phrase 20 times. I love listening to the harp. It may be the closest to heaven I'll ever get."

Partlow is not alone.

"To me, a harp is so soothing," said June Gee, 82. "It was such a surprise to hear a harp [at Broadmead] and hear a young person playing it."

Having a student living in a place where residents are generally 50 or more years older is fine with the residents.

"Bring 'em on," said Ross Jones, 84. "Let's lower the average age."

The reception is just as enthusiastic at Springwell for Xuereb, who has developed quite a few friends, not just listeners. Unlike Houng, housed separately from where most people at Broadmead live, the guitarist occupies one of the regular resident apartments.

The deal at Springwell and Broadmead does not include board — "French people make their own food anyway," said Xuereb — but still means significant savings. The annual cost of room and board at the Peabody campus for students in the diploma program is $10,700; the room portion accounts for about 60 percent of that.

"Students always have a lot of debt, so this definitely helps," Xuereb said.

His neighbors at Springwell include 91-year-old Lil Keck. Does his guitar-playing at home ever keep her up?

"I want him to," Keck said with a smile. "He makes my day because he lives directly across the hall from me. I take care of his plants when he's away."

As for when he is on site, Xuereb plays a wide range of repertoire, including his own subtly nuanced compositions. From the start of his residency, he aimed to draw residents to the guitar and its expressive possibilities.

"A lot of people don't think a guitar is a classical instrument," Xuereb said. "But I can see how curious they are about it. I can try out new pieces with them, even atonal pieces sometimes. Some people here are more into jazz, so I have been working on ragtime arrangements and a little Gershwin."

That pleases Springwell resident Frank Simmonds.

"When he plays music our generation can relate to, we all light up," said Simmonds, 93.

Xuereb takes in stride the darker side of being in a senior community, the illnesses and the deaths. Returning recently from an out-of-town concert engagement, he learned of one resident's death when he spotted her picture on a memorial wall.

"I was sad, but I felt like I had done my duty by playing for her in her last days," the guitarist said. "When I played, she would always smile."

Golden admires Xuereb's ability to handle all of this.

"When he visits one of our residents with a Parkinson's-like condition, you can see the calming effect it has," Golden said. "And when I saw Julien playing beautiful classical music for a woman in hospice in her final days, I felt I was in the presence of something really special. It was a beautiful, unforgettable moment."

The first Peabody musicians-in-residence are leaving their mark on their communities; the communities are leaving their mark on them.

"I feel I have a family here," Houng said about Broadmead. "I have hundreds of grandparents now. I get to play music and impact people's lives."

Before heading off to the Springwell lobby to play some more, Xuereb said simply: "This whole place inspires me."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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