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Volunteers sing for smiles from seniors

For the Love Notes, there is but one note: sing from the heart.

That's the credo of a group of volunteers who have been singing show tune medleys from the old days in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and senior centers for nearly eight years.

Their numbers vary to more than a dozen or so as they sing songs from the 1930s, '40s and '50s to a mostly senior, often sedate audience. Sedate, at least, until the performance begins.

"When the music starts, when you watch them," says Joe Dunavent, the group's founder, keyboardist and arranger, "they're right in there with the music."

Dunavent mentions audience members with Parkinson's or Alzheimer's diseases. Often, he says, a transformation takes place: Trembling hands begin to tap to the music. Dulled eyes brighten as their faces look up. Smiles break out.

"We've run across this many times,'' he says. "The patients come alive. The patients know all the words. They sing along. They get up and dance with us.

"It's a miracle."

Zing! went the strings of my heart

Dunavent, 67, who lives in St. Petersburg, formed the Love Notes in mid 2000. He started with two singers and invited anyone who wanted to sing along to join. Their numbers grew.

Perhaps part of the lure is the informal structure of the group. There are no rehearsals. Dunavent types out the lyrics on note cards for each singer. Those who want to join the Love Notes are auditioned — not for their vocal talent but for attitude.

"All I'm looking for is their enthusiasm and a good reason why they want to be with us. My purpose is to bring joy and purpose into many lives and to make a difference in the situation the (residents) are in."

Only those who want to sing a solo or in a duet have to audition musically. After that, the group motto is, "Enjoy yourself."

"Not everybody can keep up with the pace," he says. In a little more than an hour's performance, the Love Notes typically will sing all or part of more than 50 songs.

That can be a bit of a chore for the members, because all are amateurs. Says Dunavent: "I don't want to work with professionals."

Everything's coming up roses

The Love Notes perform nearly every Monday and Tuesday of the year, taking off only August. They have an estimated 90 venues that they visit, all in mid and south Pinellas.

Since all the performers are volunteers, matters such as soaring gasoline prices mean Dunavent often doesn't know who will be on hand until showtime.

"The number (of singers) makes no difference to us," he explains. "What does make a difference is the energy they put out. They have to give everything they've got."

One member of the group "has a touch of Alzheimer's," Dunavent says. Another has problems with one leg. At least two have pacemakers. For the shows, though, Dunavent says, "They have to forget their own aches and pains."

The oldest member, Jim Taylor, is 93. The others are in their 50s and older. Dunavent isn't sure of their individual backgrounds — who did what for a living, where. The group is too casual for that.

"Just enjoy what you're doing," he tells the singers. "If you can't enjoy, you don't need to be in with us."

He discloses that enjoying themselves "was the hardest lesson to get across: We're talking about people . . . who have forgotten to have fun in life. Now they can come and sing whatever they want."

Dunavent has been a musical performer and arranger most of his life. He moved to St. Petersburg 30 years ago and worked as manager of music stores and salesman for Havener's Music Land.

"I've always volunteered, since I was 12," he adds.

Hello, Dolly

Joan B. Slocum is one of the Love Notes' veterans. She joined when there were just a handful of Notes. She is now 80, and her sister, Martha Morris, 76, also sings with the group. Another younger sister joins in, when she visits from up North.

Slocum sings a duet with Taylor, Kiss Me Once, Kiss Me Twice. "We have more fun than the people we're singing for half the time," she says.

In nursing most of her career, Slocum came to Gulfport from Binghamton, N.Y.

She volunteers with the group because "I didn't want to sit around — I'm not a sit-arounder. This came up and, boy, I got so involved."

Slocum couldn't be more enthusiastic. "I practically live for the Love Notes," she says. "They do for me what I needed.

"If I can give of myself at this point in my life, it makes me feel like I'm not living my life in vain and sitting, waiting for the Grim Reaper," she says candidly.

The reward, she adds, is in seeing the joy in the faces of the audience members. "Tears just go down their faces, like making two track lines of joy.

"It's a wonderful give-back."

Fred. W. Wright Jr. is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg.

>>FAST FACTS

To book a performance by the Love Notes, contact Judy Lee at judy
curlee@yahoo.com.

Volunteers sing for smiles from seniors 07/28/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 26, 2008 11:07am]

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