Making music and memories

September 2022

“When my husband Ed retired, he found out about this group called the Senior Music Makers,” says Nell Shermack. “He went to a practise one day and when I got home from work, I asked how it went. ‘We started in the morning,’ he said, ‘practising the music we planned to perform in the afternoon. It went well, and then that afternoon, we actually played at one of the senior homes…’ (Here is where his voice actually changed, and his eyes had this look of wonder in them) ‘…and it was amazing. The people were so appreciative. They sang and clapped along. The folks that were mobile all came up and thanked us for coming! It was the most incredible feeling I have ever experienced, and I can’t wait for next week!’”

Nell smiles. “That was 13 years ago, and I have never forgotten the look in his eye or the sound of his voice when he described it to me,” she says. “Now, I am with the group as well and you know what? He still feels that way when he plays and so do I.”

The Senior Music Makers were founded in the fall of 1977 by a group of local musicians. It was mostly fiddle players at first, but later grew to include piano, guitars, bass, mandolin, banjo and even a tuba. The original idea was to play voluntarily in ‘old folks’ homes and hospitals, but as the group became established and popular, they played in venues as far away as Nipigon, Dryden, and Grand Portage.

“We were the first band to play at Thunder Bay Community Auditorium,” says Nell’s husband, Ed, who plays ukulele and guitar. “But now we only play in Long Term Care homes in the Thunder Bay area. There’s never been a problem having enough musicians - they hear about SMM by word of mouth and show up at the practices, which are pretty easy-going. Newbies are welcome and, because we’re seniors, most know how to play their instruments. Over the years, there have been about 80 members come and go. Currently there are 13.”

Those 13 are Ed & Nell Shermack, who both play the ukulele while Ed also plays guitar; vocalist David Silliman plays the cello and bass ukulele; Bill Luft, Terry Sinderly and Don Lysak on violin; Ken Vezina and vocalist Veijo Holopainen on guitar; Warren Peterson on banjo; Sheila Peterson on mandolin; vocalist Lorna Olson and Yvonne Kushnier on piano along with the indomitable Enid McKenzie, who has just stepped down as chair. Fiddle used to be the main instrument, but over the years, it was replaced by piano at the heart of the band.

“There was one occasion when we were scheduled to play at a Chartwell complex when both of our pianists became suddenly unavailable,” says Bill Luft, “I was designated to take over that role when I would normally have preferred to continue struggling with my violin! I am not an accomplished violinist but an even less accomplished pianist, so it was indeed memorable!”

Making memories seems to be a core value of the Senior Music Makers, or SMM as they call themselves, and not just for the musicians. Music is a powerful trigger that can both stimulate and soothe residents in Long Term Care.

“It’s always a pleasure to see the expressions on the faces of the people listening,” says Luft. “They hear familiar songs, songs that are not often heard on today’s modern media. It allows them to remember and relive better days and, in some cases, even to join in by dancing or singing along with us.”

“We have a repertoire that includes about 400 songs,” says Ed. “We do waltzes, polkas, ballads, country, and pop tunes. Mainly are considered ‘old time,’ from the 30s, 40s and 50s with some 60s thrown in.”

“The old songs are a reminder that “simple melodies” can have a lasting effect,” says David Silliman. “Senior Music Makers has offered a reminder that the gift of making music, and sharing the gift is essential in challenging times.”

Times have been challenging, indeed. 2020 brought the dreaded COVID shutdowns that impacted the lives of residents in LTC and hospitals alike. It also had a devastating effect on the SMM, as practices and gigs were mostly cancelled for 2 years. When restrictions were lowered, a couple of outdoor practices occurred, and a few smaller gigs were allowed behind Plexiglas shields and facemasks. Recently, practices have been restored and the SMM couldn’t be happier.

“I’m not sure we have completely come out of the Covid situation,” says Luft.

“There are still Retirement and LTC homes that are quarantined because of positive test results, thus our commitment to a scheduled programme of visits is not yet established. Fortunately, our SMM group are trying to be cautious about remaining free of the virus ourselves, so we can at least continue in the joy of sharing music together in our weekly practices.”

“Hopefully, gigs will resume in the Fall,” says Ed. “We are excited and a little nervous after such a lengthy layoff. We definitely miss our audiences and look forward to seeing them again, smiling, clapping, singing and dancing to our music. It makes us as happy as it does them!”

And we all know the world can use a little more ‘happy.’ And maybe some dancing. For more information on the Senior Music Makers, contact Ed Shermack at 631-6006.

Heather L. Dickson is a photoshop guru, zoologist and author of 6 novels.

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