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Ridgefield Band, With Average Age Of 88, Finds Fountain Of Youth In Music

Martha Bishop from Bethel is one of the members of the band.
Martha Bishop from Bethel is one of the members of the band. Photo Credit: Sandra Diamond Fox
The Senior Melodiers from Founders Hall in Ridgefield perform during Christmas.
The Senior Melodiers from Founders Hall in Ridgefield perform during Christmas. Photo Credit: contributed
From left, Ridgefield resident Darla Shaw and Ridgefield resident Frank Lancaster
From left, Ridgefield resident Darla Shaw and Ridgefield resident Frank Lancaster Photo Credit: Sandra Diamond Fox
From left, Frank Lancaster and Bill Palmer
From left, Frank Lancaster and Bill Palmer Photo Credit: Sandra Diamond Fox

RIDGEFIELD, Conn. — 76-year-old Bethel resident Martha Bishop, a member of the band dubbed the Senior Melodiers from Founders Hall, recalled a special memory from a performance.

“We were at a senior center, and I was singing a song that involves some movement. When I looked out at the audience, who were mostly wheelchair-bound, they were doing the hand motions along with me," Bishop said.

For the past 10 years, the Senior Melodiers — whose average age is now 88 — have performed several times a month for nursing homes, community events, school children and all sorts of special occasions.

Members, who practice weekly at Founders Hall in Ridgefield, are all volunteers and ask for no pay for their performances.

"We do this to bring happiness to people," said Ridgefield resident Darla Shaw, 79, who plays the accordion in the band.

”When we are finished performing, they don’t want us to leave," said Shaw, who is a professor of education at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.

Shaw started playing the accordion at age 65. “It was on my bucket list,” she said. Then, at age 75, she took up the steel drum.

"They say that learning a second instrument can help prevent Alzheimer's and memory loss," Shaw said.

“I want to be a role model for people to show them that it doesn’t matter how old you are, it’s all about participation," she said. "It’s not about excellence. You show up and progress at your own rate.”

The band, which has nine members, is always accepting new recruits.

Bill Palmer, a 94-year-old from Ridgefield, is band director and also plays the accordion. Originally from Larchmont, N.Y., he began playing the piano at age 8.

“It’s the only thing I wasn’t awkward at. The girls in my neighborhood made fun of me for taking piano lessons instead of playing ball, nevermind the fact that I couldn't hit the floor with my hat,” he chuckled.

Palmer tried to make time in his life for music as he got older, but when World War II broke out, he had to put his hobby on hold. From 1943 to 1946, he served as a junior grade lieutenant on a naval ship.

After that, there were the family years, said Palmer, who is happy to rekindle his passion for music once again.

Frank Lancaster, 87, still plays with the drum set his father bought in 1935. He is a graduate of Ridgefield High School’s Class of 1947 and played drums in the school band.

After graduating, he got busy with his job as an auto mechanic and with starting a family and hadn’t touched the drums in 55 years. But now he feels like he never left it.

“I enjoy watching the people relate to music. Their faces light up,” said Lancaster, who has seven great-grandchildren — and one more on the way.

He said he especially enjoys serving as the master of ceremonies in performances. “I introduce the band and I fill in the gaps with a running commentary," he said.

Bishop, who sings, dances and plays violin with the band, used to perform in community theater. She won best supporting actress for her performance in “Marvin’s Room" in Brookfield in 2005.

“This band helps keep me young. It’s physical," she said. "There are a lot of physical movements required when playing musical instruments."

The band has played at the New York City subway station at 42nd Street and in the parking lot of Woodstock in upstate New York.

On Feb. 10, the band will perform a Valentine program at the Bethel Senior Center.

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