It’s 1 p.m. on a Thursday in mid-August, meaning Ed Beckerman and Paul Gall are minutes away from the week’s main event at Brandywine Living at Princeton.

They exit the New Jersey assisted-living facility’s sliding doors with masks covering their mouths and guitars in their hands. They take a few steps to black chairs with music stands in front of them. About 15 residents sit around them, six feet apart.

Then, with the help of their guitar teacher, Beckerman and Gall sing and strum their guitars to “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” by Peter, Paul and Mary. Their fellow residents sing along and clap.

This hour-long concert conducted by residents Beckerman, 92, and Gall, 69, has become a hit. When many senior care centers around the U.S. are struggling to find safe entertainment during the coronavirus pandemic, Brandywine Living at Princeton has kept its residents’ spirits up with music.

“Even though they’re socially distant, music is a universal language, so it makes everybody come together, and we feel as one,” said Stephanie Gaber, the facility’s activities coordinator. “It’s an amazing program. When it’s finished, everybody walks away feeling good.

In October, Gaber noticed Beckerman and Gall playing the guitar together in the hallways. She wanted to make an event out of it.

She hired Matthew Robinson, a guitar tutor from Skillman, N.J., to give them lessons. About three weeks later, Beckerman and Gall began their weekly event by performing in one of the assisted-living facility’s largest rooms. Gaber named the occasion the “Hot Rock Cafe” and served dessert wines and gourmet coffee to residents.

In March, though, most of Brandywine Living’s activities shut down when the coronavirus began consuming the U.S. Many of its 102 residents are at a high-risk for the virus due to their age. Princeton is one of 29 facilities Brandywine Living owns.

Gaber added indoor events in which residents could socially distance, but the “Hot Rock Cafe” paused until May. Brandywine Living allowed six residents to enter a room while standing six feet apart to listen to Beckerman and Gall’s performance, which features classic folk and rock songs.

To accommodate for more residents and allow Robinson to return, Gaber moved the event outside near the end of May. Every week since then, between 15 and 20 residents have joined in on the escapade.

“It’s a relief that we can actually play because I like to play music a lot,” said Gall, who is also an artist. “I’ve always been involved in it even since I was a little boy. I’m glad to find some guitar buddies.”

Beckerman said he grew up in New York City at a time when most people in the U.S. played music. When he was about 20 years old, he followed his friends in learning the guitar. Beckerman was a librarian for about 60 years, and sometimes he played calming music on his guitar as part of the job.

He taught his son to play guitar and encouraged him to join a band. Beckerman stopped playing for about a decade before moving to Brandywine Living at Princeton.

“I saw that some of the residents started playing, so I started playing,” Beckerman said, “and it’s been kind of fun.”

When Gall was 4 years old in Parma, Italy, his grandfather played popular songs over the radio, placed Gall on his kitchen table and told him to dance. Gall jumped around and laughed to any song, including one of his favorites, “Marianne” by Terry Gilkyson. Gall’s mother was an opera fan and often played music throughout their house.

When Gall was in high school he learned most of his guitar skills from a blind teacher in Rome, he said. His father was a pilot in the military, so although Gall moved around Italy and the U.S., he found comfort playing guitar and singing alongside bands at bars.

Gall misses the large gatherings and wild dancing that occurred when he performed as a young adult. But with the “Hot Rock Cafe,” he again experiences the thrill of playing to a crowd.

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