Teen leverages music's power to touch others' lives

During Charlie Russ' visits to his family's longtime priest's retirement home, the teen pianist took note of how his playing had a way of resonating through the elderly man Alzheimer's disease haze.

Russ then offered a performance for other residents who cared to listen. Dozens turned out.

"They were serving wine and treats," he recounted of the Ravinia-like scene. "I played a lot of old jazz standards, which most of the seniors recognized, and their faces lit up with each new song."

Moved by the experience, Russ, of Hinsdale, now a junior at Hinsdale Central, launched the outreach Tunes for Seniors last fall to bring live music to assisted living facilities for cognitive stimulation and nostalgic pleasure.

"Every time we play, we always see people clapping. There are some people who struggle to even move, but you can see them tapping along with their feet," he said. "There always is such joy in the room."

Usually joined by buddies Alex Barbu and Andrew Kim on saxophone and Manny Eden on trombone, the group plays almost every week, rotating among a venue list that has grown to seven area senior facilities.

"We were all in jazz ensemble (at Central) and really enjoyed playing music," Russ said. "We already had kind of a built-up repertoire beforehand."

Their hour-long playlist features classics like "Misty," "Fly Me to the Moon," "Autumn Leaves" and "Splanky."

"I sometimes end off the performance by playing 'Bohemian Rhapsody' - kind of a dramatic ending," he remarked.

One the most meaningful aspects is connecting with audience members who have deep associations with the pieces.

"One guy told me when he was young, he used to sneak into jazz bars and listen to the performances during the night," Russ said. "It brings them back to a point in time, which is really cool."

The considerable age gap seems to fade into the background, he suggested, as everyone shares common delight in, say, Vince Guaraldi's "Linus & Lucy."

"It's a win-win. We're enjoying playing the song and everyone's enjoying a classic 'Charlie Brown' tune," Russ said.

Of course, this kind of community service doesn't hurt the high schoolers' National Honor Society credentials, he acknowledged. But it also makes them better musicians.

"It helps students better their performance skills overall. As you do it more and more, you get better at it," noted Russ, recalling an instructor's maxim that "one minute of public performance is like one hour of practicing,"

Tunes for Seniors is now on the verge of becoming an official Central activity. "The idea is to have a self-sustaining club," he said, and even extend the network to other schools. "We're contacting middle schools and other high schools to have team leaders within each school that would also be able to coordinate and schedule performances with students there."

For Russ, Tunes for Seniors is more than a passing riff.

"I don't see any point in stopping," he said. "It's really inspirational to see that the work that we're doing is actually making a difference and really affecting people,"

- story by Ken Knutson, photo by Jim Slonoff