local singer's gift caresses long memories
Andy Nahas has a rule: Finish with "My Way." And so he does. Standing in the center of a packed auditorium at Monroe Community Hospital, his tuxedo coat and his bowtie long since taken off, the tenor/baritone works the Frank Sinatra signature song for all it's worth. The Valentine Day's audience of 162 residents plus some visitors is with him to the end. Their shoulders sway, their eyes tear up, they are happy and sad and inspired all at the same time. "I've never seen such a singer," says Laura Syracusa, 93, after the performance. "All the songs were nice." "He really played the room," says Shelly Stuart, 63. "It's a lot of work." It is, but it's work Nahas loves. "This is the most important thing I do," says the full-time investment adviser and part-time singer. Nahas plays nursing homes and hospitals. He has sung at the Rochester Psychiatric Center and the Open Door Mission. Everywhere he has the same goal:
"Treat the audience with same respect you would treat a main-stream audience," Nahas says. "Get a tuxedo, bring in a sound system. These are people who can't get to the Eastman Theatre. My idea was to bring the Eastman Theatre to them." In his show, Nahas makes a point of telling the audience that he is something of a late bloomer when it comes to sing-ing. Naha% graduated from Brighton High School in 1976. "I was probably the shyest kid in the whole school," he says. He didn't realize he could sing so well until he went to college at the University of California at San Diego. There, he entered a talent show, tied for first, and continued to sing on and off after college, he moved to New York City to work. In 1987, he came here to work for Manning and Napier Advisors as a senior investment analyst. He has since started his own firm, the Prospect Fund. Once in a while, Nahas would sing in bars, though he didn't find it fulfilling. In 1994, he offered to sing for the residents of the Episcopal Church Home on Mt. Hope Avenue. He spent several months before his gig watching other entertainers at the home and getting to know the residents.
Thus, even before he sang his first note at the home, he had a sense of what would work and what wouldn't work. He decided it would be better to sing in the round, starting at the center of the room with the audience on all sides. He got a hand-held mike so he could move around, going up to the audience members, some in wheelchairs, and shaking their hands, bending down and looking into their eyes. "It was important for me to be mobile, because the other people can't be mobile," he said. "In nursing homes, people fall asleep. But in my shows, they don't fall asleep." Nahas thought long about song selection as well. A rule of thumb for entertain-ing nursing home residents is to sing the songs they know from their youth. Musical memory will often click in and the listeners, some of them quiet for months, will suddenly sing. Nahas sings some of the standards from before World War II, but he offers newer songs as welL "You can throw in songs like Pretty Woman' or' Achy Breaky Heart,' " he says. "Songs they can shake their shoulders to." Between songs, Nahas offers lighthearted banter, some of it poking fun at his hair, or lack thereof. On this day, he also asks the audience what the secret is to being happy. "Be grateful for everything you have," says one person. "Love," says another. "The Recreation Department," says a third. With that, the crowd applauds the Recreation Department, which helped stage Nahas' performance.
When he began performing, Nahas volunteered his time as a kind of community service. But he was besieged with invitations, sometimes doing as many as 100 a year. He began to charge, in part, to make up for all the time the concerts were taking. Nahas has sung at the Memo-rial Art Gallery and at the Eastman Theatre. Sometime, he would like to sing at a Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Pops Concert. "But I'll never stop singing at nursing homes and mental health facilities," he says. "To me that's the bigger deal."