It started with a song.
Once a month over the course of several months, Pam Smith Kelly had breakfast with her friend Phyllis Curtis to support her after the devastating loss of her husband, Frank. Frank had been a voice teacher, with extensive experience in musical theater. Additionally, he had a special place in his heart for older adults. He brought these two passions together in “Love in the Afternoon,” a theatrical, musical, dramatic program at a local senior living community. Frank led the program and Phyllis accompanied on the piano. The program was incredibly popular, but with Frank gone, “Love in the Afternoon” had come to an end.
Something magical happened at “Love in the Afternoon,” but Phyllis was not sure if that magic was possible any more. Pam, a retired music teacher from public schools, encouraged her to imagine other ways to bring magic through music to older adults. “What about a chorus or a choir?” Pam asked. Ideas were tossed around and they brainstormed about starting a group someday.
What sparked Pam and Phyllis to action was the song “I Carry You in My Heart,” by Donna Butler Douglas and Kathy Burdette. At Pam’s church choir in early fall 2018, “I Carry You in My Heart” was on the schedule and singing it herself touched something deep within Pam. It was as if the lyrics and melody were speaking to her personally: “And because of you my heart can love still more.”
“Now is the time to start this choir!” Pam said. It was time to “love more.”
Pam and Phyllis were onto something. Not surprisingly, there’s research behind the “magic” that happens when older adults make music.
The Benefits of Choral Singing
For years, people involved with choruses of older adults have reported anecdotally that they see positive changes in their singers. Researchers noticed this as well, and they have developed studies that ask “are there health benefits of singing for older adults?” Around the world, research is underway to find an answer. One such study by Dr. Amy Clements-Cortes of the University of Toronto  documented qualitative themes about choral singing and older adults, including:
- Friendship and companionship
- Uplifting and positive thoughts
- Relaxation and reduced anxiety
- Happiness and fun
“The Community of Voices,” a large study conducted at the University of California San Francisco, is a collaborative study along with the nonprofit San Francisco Community Music Center and San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services. It aims to determine whether art-based social interventions could substantially improve the quality of life for older adults. The lead investigator, Julene Johnson PhD, says: “There’s a large percentage [of older adults] who experience loneliness and social isolation, and depression…” Previous studies show that social isolation and depression can make poor health even worse. So far, this study has found that singing in a choir reduced loneliness and increased interest in life among older adults.   Further analysis of this data is in progress.
A Japanese study of immune system function and stress levels in older adults demonstrated that singing reduces stress, which improves the singer’s immune system function. Participants showed improved mood and less confusion after singing. 
Many senior communities have choruses for their residents. Churches frequently have choirs. However, older adults living in the community may not have access to these kinds of groups.
EncoreKC!, the chorus inspired by a song, came to life earlier this year to serve those who do not have these other outlets available to them. The singers met for its first rehearsal on a cold February morning. The EncoreKC leadership team really didn’t know how many to expect at the first rehearsal: they had hoped for 25-30 singers. When 50 showed up, the leaders were astonished and delighted. It didn’t stop there – at each rehearsal, a few new singers arrived wanting to sing.
Pam and Phyllis’s vision was becoming reality, and week after week, it solidified. Quality leadership contributed to the success. Pam is the artistic director and conductor for the group. She shares the podium with co-conductor Mary Beth Boucher, another retired music teacher. Phyllis accompanies the group on the piano for performances and rehearsals. The leadership team also includes Bob and Linda Dover as the librarians and me as the chorus manager. Together we bring our complementary skills to make it all happen.
Since the chorus’s mission is to benefit its singers, it does not require them to have extensive musical experience. There are no auditions; the only requirement is to be 50 years old or better. Members are invited to enjoy the perks of singing for themselves. It has become a place to build friendships, to enrich the lives of its singers, and share the joy of music at concerts for the community at large.
“Now, I live for Mondays,” one singer said, referring to the weekly Monday rehearsals.
Singers also get to socialize; after all, it has to be fun to keep the singers coming back. They are encouraged to arrive early for rehearsals to get to know others in their section, or to catch up with friends. Once a month, members go out for lunch together after rehearsal.
Clearly Pam and Phyllis have tapped into a need in our community.
The inaugural concert was held on May 5, 2019, and 68 singers took to the chancel at Asbury United Methodist Church. An audience of over 100 enjoyed a diverse program including a work from a Broadway musical, a patriotic standard, a couple of sacred songs, and a few popular tunes from bygone days. Of course, “I Carry You In My Heart” was on the program.
Something magical occurred, as it had with Frank’s “Love in the Afternoon.” “There were some very special moments in it [the performance]… some very musical moments,” Phyllis said.
“It was just an ‘Everyday Miracle’ experience,” said Kathy Burdette, one of the authors of “I Carry You In My Heart,” who had attended the EncoreKC! concert. “I was blessed to be able to share with my mom and son.”
To find out more, see the EncoreKC! Facebook page (@encorekcchorus), email TheFineArtsInstitute@gmail.com, or call (913) 353-5265.
References Clements-Cortes, Amy. (2014, November 18). The Benefits of Singing in Older Adults, Retrieved from https://www.managedhealthcareconnect.com/blog/benefits-singing-older-adults  Maier, Scott. (2018, November 8). Community Choirs Reduce Loneliness and Increase Interest in Life for Older Adults. Retrieved from https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2018/11/412281/community-choirs-reduce-loneliness-and-increase-interest-life-older-adults  Johnson, Julene K. et. al. (2018) A Community Choir Intervention to Promote Well-Being Among Diverse Older Adults: Results from the Community of Voices Trial. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gby132  Sakano, Katsuhisa, et al. (2014). Possible benefits of singing to the mental and physical condition of the elderly, BioPsychoSocial Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4033614/
All photos copyright Lauren Bond 2019.
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