Volunteer’s accordion brings smiles
Daniel Weber learned to play a musical instrument when he was growing up, but he lost interest in it as an adult.
After all, it was a big and bulky accordion that was attached to leather straps that went over his shoulders to secure the instrument that he balanced on his left thigh as he played it.
Then, during a visit to his mother several decades ago, Weber decided to lug the 32-pound one-man band instrument out of the closet. He played it for an hour and then put it back. Accordion music was no longer popular, he said.
But his thoughts toward the “squeeze box” changed about eight years ago. Visiting his mother again in his native France, he took the button accordion out of the closet again.
“I realized I could still play it,” he said.
So he packed it up and took it to his former home in California, a journey of 5,525 miles.
“I put the accordion in a suitcase. It made the trip with me. The accordion comes to America,” said Weber, who grew up in Alsace-Lorraine.
He said he played the accordion for himself in California.
“It’s very relaxing and fights depression,” he said, adding that there was little interest in hearing the instrument on the West Coast.
In Pennsylvania, it is different. He and his accordion are popular again.
Loves to entertain
Weber does not play for the accolades. He plays to see the smiles on people’s faces as the music takes them back to the days of their youth and the words and melodies they know by heart.
His venues are not large halls, auditoriums or theaters, but the recreation rooms and hallways of nursing home facilities as close as Altoona or as far away as Carlisle. In between those commitments, he makes stops in Mifflintown, Lewistown and Reedsville or travels north to Clearfield.
“He’s a wonderful volunteer,” said Terrilynn Deavor, volunteer coordinator at Aseracare, who made arrangements for Weber to play at some of the facilities.
She noted that the trip to Mifflintown is 80 miles one-way.
“The residents (at all the facilities) look forward to his visits. He brightens their day. The facilities offer other programs, but it’s not every day that you get an accordion player,” she said.
Locally, residents at Maybrook Hills Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center and Hillview Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in Altoona, as well as Elmcroft of Altoona-Duncansville and Colonial Courtyard in Tyrone, also know him well.
“I play 10 places a month,” said Weber, who holds down a full-time job weekdays as service engineer at Blair Sign Co.
But on the weekends, he picks up his portable wind instrument and plays songs that were popular 50 to 60 years ago. He brings to the stage his own rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” or “In the Still of the Night,” made popular by the Five Satins.
Weber said his playlist includes music from the 1920s to 1960s and features works by composers Jule Styne, Cole Porter and Duke Ellington. Among them are songs from Broadway musicals, such as “People” sung by Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl” or “The Lonely Goatherd” and “Do-Re-Mi” from “The Sound of Music.” Other Broadway show tunes include favorites from “Kismet,” “Camelot,” “Oliver” and “The King and I.”
He said he often gets requests for “Blue Moon” and “The Tennessee Waltz” and “The Beer Barrel Polka.”
His audiences tap their toes or nod their heads as they listen to the melodies.
“They can’t dance anymore,” Weber said, referring to many of his listeners who take seats or lean against the walls in the community rooms. “They sing, and that’s fine.”
Regular at church
While well-known to his onlookers, much of the music is new to Weber. He said he has spent hours learning and practicing the songs that were once popular hits in America.
He also knows sacred music and plays for Sunday afternoon church services at the Eleventh Street and Green Avenue towers when his schedule permits.
It was at a church where Weber first realized that the accordion was not as obsolete that he once thought.
When he came to Altoona in 2013, he decided to attend Fourth Street Church of God. The second Sunday he was there, a woman played the accordion during the prelude to worship.
“I knew it was the right place for me,” he said.
The woman was Betty Jane Neely, the wife of the pastor at the time. For a while, she and Weber were a duo at the nursing homes with Neely playing the flute and Weber played the accordion. Neely and her husband, Jon, are now retired but she occasionally plays with Weber, including a recent concert at Bellwood-Antis Public Library.
“He is very humble,” said Betty Jane Neely, adding that Weber gave free music lessons to a girl at church and a boy who saw him perform at a parade.
At the nursing homes, he makes people feel that someone cares about them, Betty Jane said.
“He always makes a point to talk between songs and tries to make them laugh,” she said. “When he is done, he shakes everybody’s hand and gives them a hug.”
A giving heart
Pastor Tim McGarvey of Altoona Alliance Church agreed Weber is personable and can talk about a lot of different subjects.
McGarvey, who originally met Weber at The Lighthouse Men’s Fellowship, said the accordion player is generous.
At the Lighthouse,
McGarvey made known a need for five laptops that his church would use to teach marketable computer skills in a separate class to people learning English as a Second Language.
Soon after, Blair Sign Co. updated its equipment and held an auction to sell its used computers. Weber gave Altoona Alliance five used laptops that he purchased at the auction.
In addition to these contributions, Weber is local corps manager for the Central Pennsylvania Chaplain Corps, which supports people when disaster strikes, and delivers a spiritual message one Sunday a month at the Blair County Prison.
He also is secretary for Blair Central Camp of Gideons International.
During the holidays, Weber plays carols on the Fourth Street Church of God float at Altoona’s Christmas parade and for passengers in the rail cars aboard the Everett Railroad’s Santa Express Train. He has also played at eight different Red Kettle locations for the Salvation Army’s annual fundraising campaign.
It was at his first Christmas here in 2013 that he learned about bringing joy to seniors in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. At Fourth Street Church of God, members traditionally go caroling at the homes of the church’s shut-ins.
“One of the shut-ins was a resident of Valley View (Maybrook),” he said.
After playing in one hallway, he went to leave. A staff member ran after him, wanting him to play in another hallway. He promised to come back on Saturday and play there.
For 18 months, he played in four different locations at Maybrook every week. Now he plays monthly in the main activity room in addition to playing for residents in a confined location.
He puts 10,000 miles a year on his vehicle, traveling to nursing homes, and never knows what to expect when he arrives.
At one setting, his only listener appeared to be asleep. Weber said he thought to himself: “Why am I doing this, he’s just sleeping?”
He stopped playing and the gentleman responded: “I knew every song you played. I could have sung along on most of them. When will you come back?”
So now he doesn’t concern himself with whether his audience is made up of one or 100.
“It makes them happy,” Weber said. “That’s why I come back.”