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If You Can Talk, You Can Sing

Local Seniors find their voices though Encore Chorale.

Eighteen of us lift our voices in song. We can be heard all the way down the hall, and each week our sound grows stronger and surer. We are a gray-haired group, most of us. Some are experienced singers, but many of us have not sung outside the shower stall for a half-century. After once-a-week rehearsals though, the Gershwin tune “Strike Up The Band” has great power. We also do a medley from “Camelot,” and follow that with a rousing spiritual, rising from a great American tradition.

The Rices are one of two couples in the group. Katy Rice, who sings alto, says the singing is “something I look forward to every week.” Her husband Arleigh is glad that, as he said “Katy wanted to get into this … it is something to do together.”

We are members of a singing group officially known as the Potomac Academy of George Mason University, rehearsing at The Woodlands, a retirement community in Fairfax. Ours is just one of 11 chorales for those over 55 in the Northern Virginia, the District of Columbia and Maryland.

All this singing is the work of Encore Creativity for Older Adults. In all, more than 500 women and men are rehearsing all through the spring season for concerts in late April and in May. That makes the Encore Chorale the largest singing group for older folks in the nation.

The women predominate.

In our chorale in Fairfax, 15 of the 18 members are women. The three men — always on the lookout for reinforcements — have to give it all the energy they can muster to bring the bass and baritone sounds into the mix.

Yes, the women predominate, and the one who runs it all is Jeanne Kelly, a petite dynamo and thorough music professional with experience at the U. S. Naval Academy and the Levine School of Music. “Jeanne is a terrific director,” said Katy Rice, an alto. “She holds the bar high.”

Encore Chorale founder and director, Kelly brings not only broad knowledge of music, but exceptional energy and drive.

The enthusiasm is infectious. “Jeanne got me singing the way she wanted me to sing,” said Katy’s husband Arleigh Rice. “She got me singing up (an octave). She kept on me until I did it.”

THE FOUNDING of the Encore Chorales grew out of the aging studies conducted by the late Gene D. Cohen, a professor of Health Care Sciences and director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at the George Washington University. Early results of the study, published in 2006, showed that singers, averaging 80 years of age, used fewer medications and suffered fewer falls than those in a control group, over 12 months of observation. Members of the Chorale showed “greater improvements over baseline on each of the depression, loneliness and morale scales,” compared to the control group.

Thus, Kelly is able to say to any group of older women and men, in effect, “come sing with us and you will be healthier and happier and there will more spring in your step,” and she can do so with the authority of the aging study.

This past December, all of us in Chorales in the region, more than 200 singers, put on a show at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. You can see and hear us by going to the Encore Creativity Web site, www.encorecreativity.org, where there is a link to the Kennedy Center’s site. Look first for Millennium Stage, then click on “live” and then look for Dec. 16. You will notice that the men, as instructed by our director, are in dark suits and loud ties. Why? Because our director says so, that’s why. The women are in suitable dark dresses, many wearing pearls. You have to admit that we look good for our age category. Spectators fill all available seats, and many more stand for our half-dozen songs. Some years, director Kelly includes “Jingle Bells” in this, our Christmas concert and when that happens, we blow out the windows.

THE SINGING DOESN’T stop with the chorales. There are two summer camps. These include a week of singing, good exercise, friendship and fun. Susan and Mike Winter of Haymarket, another couple in the Potomac Academy group at the Woodlands, first joined Jeanne Kelly at summer song camp in St. Mary’s College in Maryland. That was in 2008. The next year, they went to Chautauqua, N.Y. “I just enjoy singing,” said Susan Winter.

For Mike Winter, the “single most important reason for being” in the group is Jeanne. He added “even when she criticizes you, you feel good about it.”

Lots of the folks in Encore Chorales come back year after year. Director Kelly notes that many singers who joined when in their seventies and are now still regulars at rehearsals, and, “are now in their 90s and still going strong.”

Kelly also points out that people seem healthier. “We have many who say that singing improves their breathing,” she said. “Others say it simply gets them in a great mood. Since many live alone, this is a very big point. Loneliness is one of the biggest problems in aging.”

It is easy and fun to join an Encore Chorale. “I look forward to every week,” said Katy Rice of the rehearsals. The fees are reasonable, ranging from $80 to $165. Scholarships are available to those in need.

How to join: go to www.encorecreativity.org and see the chorales, their locations, the summer camps, and find downloads to sign up. Summer camps are in June and late August. Chorale rehearsals will begin again in the fall, but you are welcome to sign up any time.

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Jed Duvall is a member of the board of Encore Creativity for Older Adults. He and his wife Jill first joined in the singing in early 2009.