At age 80, Antonia Gonzalez has rediscovered the mandolin. Pablo Torres, 78, boasts that his singing and guitar playing has been heard "all over the Valley." And 70-year-old Pete Luczon says it feels "Oooooh so natural" to belt out a chorus of his favorite song.
Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, the three join 27 other senior citizens to play mandolins, violins, guitars and tambourines and dance inside a dreary auditorium at Las Palmas Park in San Fernando.
This week the group, which calls itself "Los Suenos de Oro" or "The Golden Dreams," is celebrating its 10th year of music making. What started as a beginning guitar class for senior citizens has blossomed into an orchestra-chorale, where one's enthusiasm to play an instrument and sing is more important than the sound of the music.
Sings His Heart Out
"As long as I have my health and my voice, I will sing my heart out," said Torres, the group's announcer and lead male singer. "Years and years ago, I stopped singing and playing the guitar. I got too busy or too lazy. Now these people are part of my life."
Group members are students enrolled in a gerontology department music class with the Kennedy-San Fernando Community Adult School, a part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The program allows classes to be conducted at convenient community centers such as Las Palmas Park auditorium.
For many of the students, the class is their only diversion and, according to program administrators, is an example of how new interests and friends can enhance the quality of life for senior citizens.
"I have my house and I have this music," Gonzales said as she cuddled the chubby mandolin in her lap. "When I was 15 I used to play because my father liked it. Now I come here and can play the songs all by ear."
"When I get up in the morning, all I can think about is the next time we get together," said Isabelle Mejia. "If you feel like singing, you can step right up to the mike. If you want to dance, you can get up and dance."
Instructor Violeta Quintero McHenry has taught the group, few of whom read music, enough guitar and mandolin cords to perform a half-hour repertoire ranging from Mexican corridos to country-western songs and even a rendition of "It's a Small World."
"These people come faithfully to class every Tuesday and Thursday," McHenry said. "When they play together, I can just see them come alive. They give all their heart when they are together."
And, although the 15 guitars are not all in tune and voices at times are a bit off-key, when The Golden Dreams perform before other senior-citizen groups, their loud and lively music can prompt an audience to sing along, some rising from their seats in dance.
"You feel so good when you are singing to older people. I think the age brings us all together," Mejia said.