Volunteer band brings Christmas cheer to local seniors

Heart and Soul band members Marlene Fissell, Will Pierce, John Richenbach, Gloria Pole and Ralph Battles.
Heart and Soul band members Marlene Fissell, Will Pierce, John Richenbach, Gloria Pole and Ralph Battles.

The dining hall at the Arroyo Grande Care Center is alive with holiday music. The Heart and Soul Band is entertaining about 20 seniors, mostly in wheelchairs. Several are tapping to the music. One lady stomps her feet and claps, fully enjoying each song. Others are shaking bells. A few others are peacefully asleep.

In a room decorated for the holidays with Santas, wreaths, lights and a Christmas tree, Heart and Soul’s five musicians played and belted out songs, such as “Silent Night,” “Rudolph,” “Christmas for Cowboys,” and “Feliz Navidad.”

Heart and Soul is a totally volunteer band that performs classic country western, oldies, gospel and Hawaiian music in care homes and senior centers in San Luis Obispo County and Santa Maria. Will Pierce, of Grover Beach, is a retired State Park ranger at Morro Bay and the Oceano Dunes, and plays guitar, sings and is the band leader. The band calls him “Surfer Will.”

Ralph Battles taught finance at Cal Poly and once worked at The Tribune, and is also a surfer. He plays guitar and sings.

Marlene Fissell plays keyboard and sings. “I’m happy to be in such a positive group,” she said. She is also a church organist.

Newest band member John Rickenbach is an environmental consultant for Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo and other cities. He plays bass and guitar and is a songwriter. “Ralph got me involved. It’s been great fun,” he enthused. “It’s rewarding on a billion levels.” Will added about John, “He’s now totally hooked.”

Gloria Pole of Arroyo Grande met the band while visiting her mother, Mary Hughes, at the Arroyo Grande Care Center. They came playing and singing into Mary’s room. Will heard Gloria singing behind him and decided (without seeing her) that they must get that voice into the band. She now sings lead and harmony.

Gloria, who has been a widow for 10 years, took care of her mom at home for six years before placing her in Arroyo Grande Care Center. “I was praying for something significant to do, especially in the field of music, because that’s what I love.” And then she met Heart and Soul in her mother’s room. Gloria sang in high school, college and church.

Asked how they got the name Heart and Soul, they replied that they bandied about several names, but kept coming back to Heart and Soul, so that one stuck. John quipped, “Originally it was Liver and Pancreas, but that was hard to sell.”

After the performance the players went around to each patient, took their hands and wished them a Merry Christmas. The old folks waited patiently for the band members, then they were wheeled out by caregivers, or remained in the room for bingo.

Gloria finished by saying, “Our real heart is in the care homes for some a place of ministry, and for others a community service effort.”

As I leave the Arroyo Grande Care Center, Gloria wants to introduce me to her mother, who will soon be 94. While Mary often doesn’t recognizes her daughter, the music “lights her up.” We find Mary in the dining hall where the band played. As I take Mary’s hands, she smiles slightly.