It’s just before lunch at Edenwald Retirement Community in Towson and about a dozen residents have gathered to hear Sam York play the oboe.
York presses the black, woodwind instrument to his pursed lips and blows. The first few notes of British composer Benjamin Britten’s “Two Insect Pieces,” classical movements themed after a grasshopper and a wasp, can be heard throughout the dining room.
“How many of you can picture the grasshopper?” York asks the seniors.
One woman raises her hand. Another nods her head. One moves along to the music.
At 23, York, a graduate student at The Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University, does not look like the other residents in the room, but he is the newest—and youngest—resident at the continuing care retirement community in Towson.
The facility includes independent living, assisted living, a memory care unit and comprehensive medical care for seniors.
York moved to Edenwald in August as part of the Peabody Conservatory’s Musician-in-Residence program. Now in it’s third year, the program connects student musicians with residential facilities throughout the Baltimore area who agree to host the students in exchange for musical services.
The program was piloted in 2015 at Springwell Senior Living in Baltimore City and expanded in 2016 to Broadmead retirement community in Cockeysville, according to Sarah Hoover, Peabody’s Associate Dean for Innovation, Interdisciplinary Partnerships and Community Initiatives.
Though the contractual relationships between hosts and musicians varies, students are generally provided with a place to live in exchange for a defined set of musical services, including open practice sessions, informal weekly concerts and room visits, Hoover said.
“The benefit for the students goes far beyond the living arrangement, which is not inconsequential, but they build relationships across generations, which has benefits that they couldn’t really imagine," Hoover said, adding that the experience makes participating students more well-rounded.
The experience also opens Peabody students up to career prospects outside of the realm of hyper-competitive orchestra jobs, Hoover said, adding that less than 1 percent of trained musicians earn coveted orchestra seats after they graduate.
Ten students, including York, applied for the program’s two spots this year.
“It was not something [the centers] undertook lightly at all,” Hoover said of what can be a year-long approval process. “But it is kind of a momentous thing to invite a 23-year old to come and live in a retirement community.”
To make the cut, York had to apply through Peabody, which gathered applications for an entire semester. From there, he was interviewed by the dean who looked for people who wanted more out of the program than free housing, Hoover said.
After that, York auditioned and interviewed with Edenwald staff who looked for someone who would complement the community, said Edenwald’s director of recreation therapy, Karen Baranauskas.
“We wanted someone who would match up with the population,” Baranauskas said.
The program is a first-year pilot at Edenwald for now, but has been well-received so far. If all goes well, the center will “revisit” extending York’s stay after this academic year or taking on another student musician, she said.
“We liked having someone on property, not just for the ability to have the music but also to build relationships with the residents,” Baranauskas said.
For resident Faith Miller, York is a “welcome addition” to Edenwald.
“He just sort of appeared one day and pulled out his oboe,” Miller, 87, said of the first time she saw York.
“You just sit there in the chair and he says, ‘I’m going to play blah blah blah’ and he plays ‘blah, blah blah’ and we sit there and enjoy,” said Miller, a former art teacher who is originally from Wisconsin. “What he does is just so neat.”
Ninety-year-old Jane Hennegar, who lives down the hall from Miller, also has enjoyed York’s performances.
“People who are usually sleeping in their chairs are now alert and listening because they have something to listen to,” Hennegar said. “He’s a godsend.”
Originally from Baltimore County, Hennegar said she has lived in an independent living apartment for about 10 years.
“It’s one of the best things that’s happened to Edenwald,” she said of York’s music.
Though residents say the music is a welcome addition to the quality of life at Edenwald, part of the reason the facility agreed to the unusual living arrangement has to do with potential health benefits thought to be derived from music, Baranauskas said.
“There’s nothing that reaches people more than music, particularly with folks with cognition loss or memory loss,” Baranauskas said. “Music unlocks memories.”
The benefits of music may include memory improvement, according to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine neurosurgeon Dr. Alex Pantelyat, but more studies are need to prove an exact link.
“We are just scratching the surface as far as understanding how music can have so many beneficial effects in the brain,” said Pantelyat, who is also the co-founder and co-director of the Center for Music & Medicine.
The center is an emerging collaboration between the Johns Hopkins medical community and the Peabody Institute and seeks to integrate music and rhythm into medical care and improve the health of musicians worldwide.
What is known, Pantelyat said, is that music can help improve mood and reduce anxiety, particularly in patients with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Rythym, or a repeated pattern of movement and sound, has also been shown to help counter the challenges with walking associated with Parkinson’s disease.
“Music is highly pro-social,” Pantelyat said. “It brings people together and brings them out of their shell and isolation, which is a major problem in nursing facilities in particular.”
The social aspect of performing outside of a traditional concert hall is what York enjoys most.
“Music is so powerful and does things that the spoken word or video just can’t do,” York said.
Originally from Bowie, York grew up playing the trumpet, piano and violin with his two siblings. After seeing flutist James Galway play a concert in Virginia, he told his mother he wanted to play something else and settled on the oboe.
Though York’s goal is to join a symphony, he admits the odds are not in his favor.
“There’s a lot of oboists out there but not many openings,” he said. “Music is more than performing though. It can be teaching and being creative.”
His time at Edenwald, he said, is a chance to share his love of music while perfecting his performance skills with an audience that gives instant, unfiltered feedback.
Elders often tell you how they feel right away, he said. The pace of life at Edenwald is also slower than York is used to, he said, which leads to deep conversations about both the music and life in general.
“They want to know who you are and your life story,” York said. “I think that’s something a lot of our society has lost. It’s not about getting all the right notes or perfect playing, it’s about sharing the music with people,” York said.