If television host Ellen DeGeneres heard the Friendship Village Kitchen Band, she wouldn’t be able to sit still in her chair, says Corinne O’Heran, life enrichment director at the Friendship Village retirement community.
The 21 members of the band, ages 71 to 97, play instruments made from kitchen implements such as pie pans, whisks, bottle caps, measuring cups and spoons. O’Heran — who admits her “secret dream” is for the kitchen band to perform on The Ellen DeGeneres Show — says that not only will this group make the TV host “want to dance,” but it will shatter misconceptions people have about senior citizens.
Society doesn’t recognize how vital people can be in their 80s and 90s, O’Heran says. She witnesses this liveliness every day and describes the retirement community’s residents as encouraging and inspiring.
“It’s not just about Friendship Village either, although I think we’re special,” O’Heran says. “I want people to see that aging isn’t bad. My residents are some of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen and ever known. I think aging is such a negative in our society. My people knock that negative right out of the park.”
Kay Snider, the band’s 90-year-old founder and current conductor, redefines typical perceptions of a woman her age. Full of life and wit, the former organ player was a member of a kitchen band when she lived in Florida. When she moved to Michigan, she wanted to form such a group at Friendship Village so she put up a recruitment poster and 16 people joined.
“We worked a whole year on that first band, getting the music and instruments and learning to work together,” Snider says. The group unanimously picked Snider as its conductor. “Nobody else would do it,” she says, laughing.
If you were invited onstage to play the stomp fiddle, a thick wooden stump fitted with a horn for honking and tin pie plates that are struck with a whisk, you would gain an appreciation of how hard the members practice and how much fun they have. Alternating between singing and playing a kitchen instrument and kazoos isn’t as easy as band members make it look.
“Just watch Kay,” the band members advise, pointing to Snider, who swings a wooden spoon to songs such as “RaggMopp,” a lively tune that was popular in the early 1950s.
“It took effort for all of us to work together and not give up,” O’Heran says of the song, which she describes as very rhythmic and hard to learn.
The band practices every Thursday morning and performs a concert at Friendship Village every three months, Snider says. The band also takes its show on the road, performing at the Portage Senior Center, The Life Care Center in Plainwell and the Lutheran Church Seniors Group in Richland. A small group of band members performs at the annual Great Grown-Up Spelling Bee in November and has become a favorite at this event, hosted by the Kalamazoo Public Library.
“The residents have won the People’s Choice Award for the last three years,” O’Heran says.
O’Heran, who has a music therapy degree from Western Michigan University, says playing in the band provides seniors with socialization, collaboration, cognitive brain activity enhancement and small and large motor activity.
“They have to pay attention to the music (and) where we’re at,” O’Heran explains. “There are lots of things going on in different parts of your brain.”
O’Heran says the residents have embraced the band. One summer when she was forced to cancel practice to prepare new songs, the residents let her know how much they missed it.
“Every day someone would say, ‘When does band start up again?’ And I thought, ‘I’m never going to cancel practice again!’ They really missed it. They have an identity in it.”
What O’Heran didn’t anticipate was how much the band would mean to its members’ families, several of whom have asked the band to play at memorial services for members who have died.
The members of the Kitchen Band mean a great deal to O’Heran as well. “Their lives have left fingerprints on my heart, and the person I am today has been greatly affected by the impact they have on my life. The Kitchen Band has been such a blessing to me.”