Student group performs at local nursing homes

April 4, 2018, 12:02 a.m.

Every weekend during winter and spring quarters, the student group Side by Side performs song varying in genre, style and level of musical accompaniment to the elderly at nursing homes in the Bay Area.

Established in 1994, Side by Side adheres to its tradition of befriending senior citizens in the local area and sharing musical experiences with them. According to tenor Brandon Leong ’18, the intimate performances are unique and contrast with his “very impersonal” experiences in high school a cappella and theater.

“I used to look out at the crowd, and they could all see me but I [couldn’t] see them,” said Leong, who has performed the national anthem at AT&T Park in San Francisco and toured France and Russia with his choir group.

According to co-musical director Julia Axelrod ’20, Side by Side does not just offer a rewarding experience for musical Stanford students, but also has an uplifting effect on audiences.

“When the music starts, the [audience members] light up, their heads come [out] of their chests,” Axelrod said. “You can see how music reaches these people.”

Sydney Chiong, the activities and volunteer coordinator at Sunrise Senior Living in Belmont, where Side by Side has performed, said residents enjoyed the personal and interactive nature of the performances.

“Before singing each one of their songs, [the performers] had a little story that worked with it, and I think the residents really loved it,” Chiong said. “I loved seeing their interactions with the residents, and we’d love to have them again.”

Side by Side co-facilitator Samantha Starkey ’19 said that she and her fellow group leaders intentionally choose songs that were popular when the older audience members were “in their prime” and tend to evoke fond, “visceral memories” of young adulthood, such as spending time with family, going to school dances, falling in love and getting married.

Each Side by Side performance features classic tunes such as Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music,” performed either a cappella or with piano accompaniment. The group also performs some songs as “Touchie Feelies,” in which singers kneel in front of an audience member, holds their hands and looks them in the eye as they sing.

“I was singing to one couple some Touchie Feelie song about love, and at the end he [turned] to his wife and said, ‘I love you, you’re still as beautiful as the day I met you,’” Axelrod said. “They were tearing up and I was tearing up. It was a beautiful moment.”

Axelrod added that she enjoys connecting with residents who have Stanford affiliations. One couple she met told her that their 70-year-long relationship began at an all-campus dance during their freshman year on the Farm.

Others emphasized the difference between this campus choral group and others. Co-musical director Kai McKenney ’20 described Side by Side as “more approachable” than other a cappella groups.

Starkey and fellow co-facilitators, Casey Mullins ’20 and Lisa Manzanete ’19 — both of whom handle the logistics of arranging performances and plan bonding events and reflection sessions for the group members during rehearsals — shared McKenney’s sentiment.

“One thing we definitely look for in the audition process — more than other musical groups here — is community fit,” McKenney said. “You can be a great singer, but we also want you to be confident that you’re going to be a part of and contribute to the community.”

McKenney said he had not planned join a singing group at Stanford but was persuaded to join Side by Side after encountering them at a Haas Public Service fair.

McKenney said at the fair, Side by Side members asked him whether he enjoys spending time with elderly people.

“I was like, okay, I can’t say no to that question because I’m not a terrible person,” he said. “So I go up to the table and I said, ‘That sounds really cool, too bad I don’t sing.’”

However, Side by Side also needed a new piano accompanist that year, so McKenney — an experienced pianist — auditioned for the part.

One year after joining the group, McKenney is co-musical director with Axelrod. Together, they pick the annual repertoire of songs, run rehearsals and teach group members the music and choreography for performances.

Leong said Side by Side is one of the best experiences he has had at Stanford, and described the group as a tight-knit community that gives students the chance to “spread joy” to local nursing homes.

Mullins said that while Side by Side is a significant time commitment, she leaves every performance “in a much better mood.”

“Our main goal isn’t musical perfection,” Mullins said. “It’s having fun, being warm and being a source of joy for someone. It’s about feeling the music and recognizing that your singing can move people.”


Contact Melissa Santos at melissasantos ‘at’

Melissa Santos is a sophomore from Los Angeles studying comparative literature. She is the Desk Editor for the Daily's campus life beat and chair of the Community Life and Inclusion Program. Ask Melissa about her love for teaching or her Golden Girls obsession at melissasantos ‘at’

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