Transforming the lives of the older generation through choirs

Jeanne KellyFri 31st May 2019

As one remarkable organisation shows, singing brings physical, mental and social benefits

It seems every other day there’s a story in one publication or another about the benefits of choral singing. Or it’s another study attempting to re-validate what we already know.  I say ‘know’ because I led the choral segment of the landmark 2001-2003 Creativity and Aging Study conducted by the late Dr. Gene Cohermn, head of the Gerontology Department of the George Washington University in Washington, DC. As part of the study, I formed three choral groups of adults whose average age was well over 70. Of course, there was also a ‘control’ group of what we called ‘the couch potatoes’. After three years, we found that our singers suffered fewer falls, took fewer medications, had fewer doctor visits and, in general, had a much higher level of morale. Broadly speaking, we determined that professionally led choral singing produced physical, mental and social benefits. It was big news. Even one of the major television news networks in the US, CBS, aired a story on us.

During the time of the study, I was the executive director of a campus of a large community music school in the Washington, DC area.  I continued to conduct the three choruses after the study concluded, as I found it to be personally enriching and rewarding. Then, in 2007, I left my position to start Encore Creativity for Older Adults. My vision was to create multiple unauditioned choral groups for adults over the age of 55, regardless of experience or ability. That was in 2007. Today, Encore has 20 choral groups, including 14 chorales that sing traditional choral music and six that sing rock & roll. Over 1200 older adults participate in these programs.  Additionally, Encore has several ‘affiliate’ groups across the US. Mission accomplished?  Not quite.

In September 2019, Encore will introduce the Encore Sentimental Journey Singers. These groups will be for adults who are suffering from early stage Alzheimer’s or have other memory impairment. We will start with one program in Virginia, but expect to grow as we have, and continue to, with our other programs. 

Encore’s concept is quite simple: each of our groups, which average about 50-60 in number, rehearse the same music for 15 weeks. We then bring two or more groups together to perform concerts. All are free and open to the public and we typically pack the house with audience members who, if attending an Encore concert for the first time are amazed at the quality of the singing they hear. In a typical concert season, we’ll do around 15 concerts.  We do two ‘semesters’ per year, running from September to December and then from January to May.  

Our chorales sing a variety of music, including classical (we performed Handel’s Hallelujah Amen in our May concert series), American Songbook, such as Gershwin and Copland, Broadway tunes such as Les Mis and Music Man, American spirituals (Take Me to the Water), and more.  The rockers sing rock & roll from the 50s to the present day.

We don’t take the summers off either. As I write this, I am preparing to take 100 singers to England where we will perform two concerts, one with the Bath Men’s Chorus and another with Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir in London.  Over the past ten years, Encore groups have traveled the world, singing with the Rouen, France City Hall Choir, the Bitburger Brewery Men’s Choir in Germany, and with other groups in Europe and Canada.

Shortly after our travels, we conduct three ‘summer camps’ from June through August. After many years of camps, last year, we launched a rock and roll camp in Annapolis, MD. It sold out nearly as soon as it was announced. Another crowning accomplishment for Encore was an invitation by the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts perform in the Concert Hall. Over 550 singers jammed the stage and performed for an audience of approximately 2,000 people who gave the performance a standing ovation. The Kennedy Center was so impressed, we’ve been invited back this year and for the years to come.

Encore has delivered on the promise of those physical, mental and social benefits to our older adult singers, most of whom never dreamed they’d have the opportunities Encore and choral singing have presented to them. I have hundreds of appreciative cards and emails to prove it. Great friendships have developed among our singers who meet socially outside of rehearsals and performances. One couple who met through Encore are getting married this summer and have asked me to play a role in the ceremony.   

Encore transforms the lives of older adults, not only by giving them unique opportunities but by pushing them to exceed their own expectations. One singer recently wrote, ‘Our conductor treats us like we were professionals. She doesn’t soft-pedal anything because we are seniors. She expects nothing short of the best from us and we do our darndest to give it to her.’ Encore will continue to pursue its vision of providing these opportunities to as many people across the US as we can.

You can hear singers from Encore at a free concert alongside Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir at St James's Sussex Gardens, London on June 5, at 8pm

Jeanne Kelly's picture

Jeanne Kelly

Jeanne Kelly - whose career has included being a vocal performer, teacher, conductor and administrator - is Founder and Artistic Director of Encore Creativity for Older Adults.

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