SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – MAY 2009: Every Friday afternoon at 2:00 pm, the residents at Willow Glen Convalescent Hospital in San Jose, California pack the lounge for “Florence and Friends Sing-Along.” It’s a mixed crowd, with some folks literally dancing in the aisles and other who might, at first glance, appear to be oblivious to the merriment swirling around them. But participants at both extremes, and everyone in-between, benefit from the simple joy of singing and remembering the songs of their youth. Technology has also helped, with high-quality Neumann and Sennheiser wired and wireless microphones encouraging participation from those who might have otherwise remained silent.
Ninety-nine year-old pianist Florence Bobbitt and 72-year-old singer Beverly Kohler both enjoyed successful musical careers in the springtime of their youth, Bobbitt playing private events throughout New England and Kohler traveling the nightclub circuit up and down the California coast. They met in 1970, when Bobbitt was volunteering with her itinerant troupe “Florence and Friends” at the hospital and Kohler was awaiting medical treatment. The two became fast friends and continued to volunteer their time every Friday afternoon at Silicon Valley hospitals and nursing homes, including Willow Glen.
Nevertheless, over the ensuing decades, the two lost touch. So, it was thus a tremendous surprise when they both independently found their way to Willow Glen in 2001 and 2002, as residents. Despite the fact that Florence had arthritis, she immediately took to Willow Glen’s electric piano and gave it a whirl. It was like she was twenty again, with no need for sheet music and the ability to transpose a vast catalog of songs in her head effortlessly. And while Beverly has MS, the disease had not affected her wonderful singing voice, and so the two reestablished “Florence and Friends,” for their fellow residents. Inspired, a pair of retired nurses, Helen Chase and California Kim, joined the troupe.
Things went on that way for several years before San Francisco lawyer Neil Williams read a story about “Florence and Friends” in the San Jose Mercury News. Banking on a hunch that they would be singing the songs that his mother had taught him 55 years earlier, Williams asked if he could visit. “I was enthralled by their graciousness and talent,” he said. “I sang with them that day and was invited to come back. I’ve been back almost every Friday since!”
When he arrived, Williams found “Florence and Friends” set up with a Suzuki electric piano containing line inputs and a self-contained speaker system, along with a poor-quality wired microphone on a phono plug. “Many of the residents who came every week didn’t say much,” he explained. “But when they heard the music, they would try to sing-a-long! But with their existing microphone system, there was no way to capture or move around the room to inspire participation.”
Williams set out to improve the situation. After doing a little bit of research, he bought a Mackie 802-VLZ3 mixer and replaced the existing wired microphone with a vastly higher-fidelity Neumann KMS 104 live vocal condenser microphone. Then he added a Sennheiser ew 135 G2 wireless handheld microphone. The new equipment took “Florence and Friends” to a wonderful new level of interactivity.
Recently, Kohler took a break from “Florence and Friends” and Williams was delighted to discover that Florence could sing, in addition to play the piano. However, Florence is also set in her ways. She didn’t like the large handheld mic. She didn’t like a Sennheiser shotgun that Williams had for other applications. What could Williams do? A lavalier would capture too much of the piano. It took some brainstorming, but he finally guessed that a diminutive lectern mic might do the trick. He purchased a Sennheiser ME 35 super-cardioid capsule for a Sennheiser MZH 3040 gooseneck. “It stays out of her way, but is directional enough to capture her voice without the piano,” he said.
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PHOTO CAPTION Ninety-nine year old Florence Bobbitt plays and sings using a Sennheiser ME 35 super-cardioid capsule on a MZH 3040 gooseneck to keep the good times rolling for seniors at Willow Glen Convalescent Hospital in San Jose, California.