Striking a Chord During COVID
Al Wilen has been playing piano for as long as he can remember. The 90 year-old, who resides at the Fountainview at Eisenberg Village, part of the Los Angeles Jewish Home, recalls sitting down at the instrument as a child and being able to pick out notes by ear. However, though it had been a passion from his earliest days, it took coming to the Jewish Home for Al to launch the musical partnership of a lifetime: a dynamic collaboration with fellow resident and lyricist Mel Sapiro.
Mel, 93, never thought of himself as a songwriter. A successful entrepreneur who lived in the same house in Encino for five decades, before moving into Fountainview just over a year ago, he first put pen to paper once the coronavirus pandemic hit, when he and his wife, Jean, began sheltering in place in their Jewish Home apartment.
"Suddenly, I had all this time, and I decided to try my hand at poetry," Mel says. "Before I knew it, I'd written 33 poems, which are now assembled in a loose leaf notebook and on display in the Fountainview library."
Mel read one of those poems aloud during a Fountainview community-wide Zoom meeting, and Al, who was also attending, was riveted. "Mel's writing was beautiful, and I found myself wondering whether I could put it to music," he recalls. He pitched the notion to Mel, who readily agreed.
Complying with social-distancing norms, the duo got to work over Zoom, tossing ideas back and forth until they had a solid draft of their first song. They previewed the piece for Lauri Kamiel, Fountainview's activities coordinator and a talented vocalist, ultimately enlisting her to record the song and to perform it for the community's residents.
"I fell in love with the song the minute I heard it," Lauri says. "And I was also in awe: We've certainly had other talented residents here, but we've never had two people join forces to create art together. They did this completely on their own."
Lauri's colleague, Fountainview's Lifestyle and Enrichment Director Carolyn Clark, concurs. "I've worked in senior living for 12 years, and I've never seen a creative partnership like this one," she says. "The song is gorgeous, and so well written. I think it could be on the radio."
Al, who has played piano in Fountainview's lobby for years, began working the new song, called "Friend," into his rotation, and it generated a huge reaction.
"During our shutdown, we haven't been able to have outside music events or anyone visiting. Al's piano playing has been such a gift to us; having our resident pianist in our lobby every day makes things feel more normal," Carolyn says. "People come to listen to him, a few at a time and appropriately masked and distanced, and they have really resonated with ‘Friend,' both with the melody and the message."
Buoyed by the success of their first outing, Al and Mel set to work on another song, and as their partnership blossomed, a deep friendship was born.
"When I first came here and met Al, I knew we'd be good friends," Mel says. "We hit it off right away, which is just terrific."
"Mel is amazing—he can take any occasion and write a poem about it," Al says. "I admire his skill and am grateful we've gotten to know each other."
The lyrics of "Friend" explore this strange pandemic moment in global history and its impact on everyone living through it:
"My friend, strange days are with us, brought about by a coronavirus.
Making us live and change our ways. Hard to get together in these strange days.
So laugh a little and brighten up your smile. To get together it may take a while.
But this much is true, and let me remind you, our friendship endures no matter what we have to do."
The song speaks to a universal truth and also to Mel and Al's own story.
"Our friendship has made the past bunch of months easier and the time fly by more quickly," Mel says. "But it'll be nice to be able to get together in person."