Music is a language that speaks to everyone in different ways; as we age, it becomes an integral part of our identities and forms of expression to ourselves and others.
For some Phoebe residents of Phoebe Ministries, based in Allentown, Pa., music remains part of a daily pursuit of happiness and involvement in their community. Rita Bieber can remember the moment she realized she had perfect pitch.
Her mother was practicing on the piano, and Rita was listening when she heard a wrong note.
“That E doesn’t sound right,” she piped up. Her mother stopped playing and looked at her.
“What E?” she asked.
“That E you just played,” said Rita.
“How do you know it’s an E?” asked her mother, bewildered.
As Rita explains today, she thought it was just something everybody knew: that intrinsic and unshakeable confidence in the note, as clear and definable as a word. Her lessons in music began around that time, first with her mother, and then with local teachers in Tunkhannock, the small town near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where they lived.
Rita — whose full name is Marguerite — grew quickly as a musician. She studied music and organ at Pennsylvania State University (class of ’48). She taught music in public school as well as to a few private pupils over the years, and played with her mother as a church organist every week. Today Rita lives in Meadow Glen, the personal care community that opened at Phoebe Richland in 2016.
Even in retirement, Rita Bieber kept busy with music. For more than ten years — up until she was almost 95 — she played at McCoole’s at the Red Lion Inn in Quakertown, Pa., just down the road from her previous home in Kintnersville. Along with perfect pitch — a rare gift even for professional musicians — Rita has a remarkable talent for playing by ear. “She’s pretty incredible,” says Jan Hench, owner of McCoole’s. “She had lists of titles for people to look at and you could just spout off a title at her or start humming the tune and she’d start playing. She never used sheet music.” Rita was a popular act with diners, who, in many cases, came just to hear her play.
“I play whatever there is to play,” she says. “I do a lot of my own composing, too — just for fun!” Some of Rita’s compositions for church music were published in a monthly magazine called The Choir Herald. “I’ve enjoyed music all my life,” she affirms.
Early memories of music are common with practiced musicians. At Phoebe Berks Village, the independent living community of Phoebe Berks in Wernersville, Pa., Sandy Leidich and Bob Masenheimer both recall the strong impact music had on their formative years.
“I remember my parents getting me an LP of waltzes by Richard Strauss,” says Bob, “and I just thought that was the greatest gift in the world.” As a child, Bob spent hours listening to classical records on a small record player his parents had given him. At age 9 he began taking singing lessons. In high school he took organ lessons from Ed Huff at Zion’s “Liberty Bell” Church in Allentown, and played tuba in the band at South Whitehall High School (now Parkland High School).
Bob and his wife moved to Phoebe Berks in 2010, but even before that he had become involved with musical life there. The director of the resident choir, the Phoebe Choraleers, had broken her shoulder before a Christmas concert and the executive director of Phoebe Berks, Chuck Galley, asked Bob to step in. The following spring, the Masenheimers moved to Phoebe Berks, joined the Choraleers as singers, and a year later Bob took over as director. Within another year he had established the hand bell choir, which is going strong today, and about four years ago established the piano quartet.
“I arrange music on my computer using a software program,” Bob explains. “I was working on a piece and I thought, ‘This would be great on a piano duet, or even for two pianos!’” He showed it to two friends of his, Marie Ohlinger and Sandy Leidich, and they agreed to give it a shot. Virginia Schaffer joined the group, which began giving concerts at Bern United Church of Christ in Leesport and Phoebe Berks once a year, facilitated by the gift of a new grand piano by Ron Rider, fellow resident of Phoebe.
Though he lives in a retirement community, Bob could hardly be called retired. He is currently minister of music at St. Paul’s UCC in neighboring Robesonia, plays for chapel and mass at Phoebe Berks, and keeps up with the quartet and Choraleers. “A body can only do so much!” he laughs, saying he isn’t planning to take on any additional roles, but that he will keep up with what he’s doing now.
His friend, Sandy, feels much the same way, and confirms that she has been busier than ever since moving to Phoebe Berks — though she isn’t complaining. She says anyone moving there can be as involved as they want to be and that was what attracted her to the retirement community.
Sandy has been playing piano since the age of five, when she began taking lessons from her elementary school teacher who gave private lessons at home. “She taught me how to read music very, very well,” says Sandy, who finds her particular strength is in sight-reading. She began giving lessons herself when a friend of her daughter wanted to learn, and taught for 30 years, taking up organ along the way. Before she retired in 2005, Sandy was head organist at her church, but piano is really her true love, and accompanying others is one of her favorite ways to play. So it came as a natural fit when Bob formed the quartet, and when Sandy met Al Incledon, a gifted violinist at Phoebe Berks who played by ear. She and Al became fast friends, and played many times together before he passed away in 2018. “I think I was destined to be here just to get together with Al,” says Sandy. She and Bob both keep very busy at Phoebe Berks, where the running joke is that retirees often find themselves involved in so many activities and events that any idea of “retirement” is laughable.
Rita, Sandy, and Bob are only a few of the many musicians and talented artists that call Phoebe home, and continue to exercise their art and their passion as they age.
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How has music impacted your life? Join the conversation and tell us your experience on Facebook @PhoebeMinistries #LifetimeOfMusic. To learn more about the opportunities that await you at Phoebe, visit Phoebe.org.
Reprinted with permission from the Phoebe Messenger, Spring 2019.