Helping harmonies

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — During one of the initial performances by the Penn State Music Service Club, an elderly couple rose to their feet and started dancing along with the music.

“It reminded them of dancing to that song when they first met,” said senior Michelle Lai, the club's recruitment chair.

Founded by a group of seven Penn State Schreyer Scholars in the fall of 2014, the club now counts more than three dozen active members and plays a variety of music at local nursing homes, retirement communities and for LifeLink PSU, which supports college-aged students with special needs. 

The common thread that ties together those seven founders and the majority of the club’s growing membership is not only musical talent but a desire to have that kind of emotional impact.

“Basically, everyone at some point was a serious musician or continues to be,” said senior Sylvia Biscoveanu, the club’s vice president of membership, “and they want to keep it up or somehow give back with it.”

The Music Service Club performed at Hershey Medical Center on Jan. 21, and typically performs at three or four events per month. 

Most of the group’s original members had given similar service-oriented performances as high school students. They bonded through the Schreyer Honors College and decided the formation of a club would be a good way of staying tied to music, and making a difference in the community, without a major time commitment.

“I think one of the reasons it was so successful and that we were actually able to do this was that we were all friends,” said senior Kerstyn Auman, who is the club’s LifeLink service chair. “It was really easy for us to get together and plan this out.”

Several club members can play multiple instruments, though guitar and piano are the most popular because they adapt most easily to a variety of songs and genres. The group has its own keyboard and is in the process of obtaining its own guitar, and about a quarter of the membership sing.

What do they play and sing? Everything from Bach to Michael Jackson, depending on the venue and the audience. Residents of nursing homes prefer classical pieces or older rock, while LifeLink students are not shy about requesting pop songs.

“Sometimes we try to do them on the spot,” said senior and club treasurer Noah Lingwall. “Sometimes we have to be honest with them and say we don’t want to embarrass ourselves. They always remember what we requested and they’re always looking to hear it.”

Club vice president Erika Veiszlemlein, a sophomore who plays the violin, likes that the ever-changing set list has challenged her usual playing style.

“I’ve been doing a lot of just listening to music and playing by ear,” she said, “so I’ve had to relearn my whole skill set, but that’s been a good thing for me.”

The club has expanded its initial membership by word of mouth and sending flyers out on campus. Junior John Johnson, who showed up at early meetings as often as the founders, is now the club’s president. The students who were there at the beginning hope to see the club continue to grow in membership as well as expand its reach with events like the recent performance in Hershey.

As they head toward graduation, though, the senior students in the group are simply enjoying the effect they often have on their audiences. Biscoveanu was proud to play at LifeLink’s graduation ceremony last year. Lingwall remembers a LifeLink student, who has trouble communicating with others, thanking group members for the effect their performance had on him.

“He told us that he tries to have conversations with people or make sense of them in his head and it’s just really difficult. The words don’t come together nicely,” Lingwall said. “But when music is involved, or he’s thinking about or talking about music or singing along, things seem to fit together, and it helps him get beyond that barrier. That was really powerful.”

Last Updated February 16, 2017