CLEARWATER — If you’re watching for it, the giant grand piano just above the trees lets drivers know they’ve found the Clearwater offices of Fletcher Music Centers.
Inside the Fletcher building off Ulmerton Road, two dozen music-lovers sit at tables, listening to a cheerful pep talk from Joe Fontechia, manger and product specialist for the company. Polished-wood electric organs, ranging from beginner to advanced keyboard designs, line the walls of the circular room.
Fontechia, wearing a lavender shirt, sparkly tie and sport coat, warms up the small crowd of seniors with music trivia: “Name as many songs as you can with a month in the title,” and other questions.
A sign on one wall declares, “Happy Birthday!” as framed physician testimonials linking good health and music decorate another wall.
Welcome to the 114th birthday of Fletcher Music, which was founded by piano tuner Edgar Fletcher in his upstate New York home in 1905. The national company, which opened its first Florida store in Tyrone Mall in 1975, has opened several stores in the state since, including the Clearwater store in 1982. The company also began to sell Lowrey and Baldwin pianos and organs in that year.
Fontechia, a concert artist for Lowrey Organ Co., traveled all over the world for more than 30 years demonstrating the company’s high-end organs to potential distributors. During a break in the birthday presentation to the retirees, he spoke of his role at Fletcher.
“I’m retired from all that traveling, but I still do concerts to demonstrate these great instruments,” Fontechia said. “Somebody must show the musical instrument dealers and new people what the organs can do and how the keyboards and buttons do it. In a few minutes, I’m going to go back in and go through the line of organs and show people some of the features and how to play.”
The company, which also has stores in Bonita Springs, Brooksville, Osprey, Port Charlotte, Sun City Center, and the Villages, also has locations in Mesa, Tucson, and Sun City West, Arizona. If one hasn’t picked up the common theme, here it is: The cities have high populations of snowbirds and retirees.
The digital organs come with pre-programmed chords and accompaniments — standard, gospel, country, jazz, rock, zydeco, Broadway tunes, and bossa nova — already programmed and accessible by the simple push of a button. Some come with USB ports and CD players for recording one’s own performances.
The electric organs are popular with retirees who purchase them because they are easy to play, Fletcher sales staffers say.
“They are specifically designed to allow people with no prior musical experience to play without the rigors of formal study,” said Ken Zenor, Fletcher membership services representative.
Potential customers are invited to come into the stores for sample lessons, during which they are shown how to operate the organ’s settings and keys. They use a starter music book that employs corresponding labeling on the electric organs.
“After that sampler set of lessons, they are invited to make a purchase or not make a purchase, inclusive of a lifetime membership to the club,” Zenor said. “They go from instruments that have basic functions and features to more inclusive functions and features.”
There’s another reason Fletcher markets its organs to seniors and their families: Becoming a Fletcher customer is like joining a social circuit. Buyers are automatically registered for the Fletcher Music Club, which includes free music lessons for life. They become part of an active group of seniors who perform for each other and travel, sometimes overnight, to venues to see live music performances. All organized by Fletcher.
Here is how the Fletcher’s website puts it: “Hear the finest musicians in the world at private concerts and meet new friends while enjoying the many other musical activities that are offered exclusively to our Music Club Members.”
“People come in buses from all over Florida to stay with us for barbecues, live concerts in Orlando, St. Pete, and elsewhere,” said Art Bishop, director of studio operations for Fletcher in Clearwater. “We also involve our members in workshops, music seminars, and introduce them to professional musicians. They mingle with other members around the state. We do this to enrich their lives with music.”
In its advertising, the company cites a medical study that suggests playing music helps the mood, memory, and well-being of senior citizens. In fact, Zeno said, Fletcher Music Centers’ Sarasota store participated in the study.
“Fletcher Music was their lab,” Zenor said.
Called the Music Making and Wellness project, the study was a joint effort of five universities, the American Music Therapy Association, and Fletcher. While a group of seniors at the Sarasota store took regular keyboard lessons over two, 10-week semesters, a control group of 69 retirees in Michigan did not take keyboard lessons. Medical professionals drew blood from the participants in each group before the lessons and after each semester.
“We had periodic blood draws that would measure blood components such as cholesterol, serotonin, melatonin, all the tonins, all the things that are good from us at the beginning and the end of a monitoring period of time,” Zenor said. “They did quality-of-life surveys to assess the mental happiness, emotional happiness at the beginning of the lessons and then periodically throughout the course. And they discovered improvements in all of those areas with people actively participating in music instruction in Florida. The control group in Michigan got no musical instruction and there was no change.”
Shirley Bradley, 89, has been a Fletcher Music Club member and organ player since the 1998 study.
“They pulled my blood during my classes on the organ,” Bradley said. “I do know at the beginning I was not as mentally alert, but as time progressed it was beneficial physically, emotionally. More importantly, though, I play for my enjoyment.”
As a child, Bradley had one summer of piano lessons, “one of the longest summers in my life,” she said, laughing.
Asked how she feels when playing music or singing, she said, “I feel peace, calm, achievement because you learn a little more about the organ each time you play it.”