Never too old to rock and roll
On a recent autumn day in Alexandria, a group of singers belted out the 1966 Motown hit “You Keep Me Hanging On,” swaying to the rhythm, bobbing their heads, smiling and shouting loudly at the end of the song.
Is this a reunion of the Supremes? Maybe a young tribute band mimicking these great singers? Well, no. In fact, you see a few canes, hearing aids and lots of white hair among the rockers, who are clearly having a blast.
They’re the singers of “Alexandria Rocks,” one of 23 Encore Creativity Choruses filled with older adults from the Washington area. The choirs are open to anyone 55 and over — no audition and no prior experience or ability to read music required.
“Let’s have the first altos and second sopranos sing ‘whoa-whoa-whoa, yeah-yeah,’” said their director, David Lang. “Kind of tricky here.”
He’s not kidding. All of this music takes a lot of practice. The score of “You Keep Me Hanging On” — in five parts, with lots of syncopation — is almost as challenging as a highbrow requiem.
For many singers, the choruses reawaken a long-lost interest in music. One, Jerry Catron, said, “In the ‘50s and ‘60s I spent a lot of time in smoky bars around a piano, singing a little bit of everything. Later, I found myself mostly to be a back-pew singer in church.”
At age 69, he took his first voice lessons and now sings with Alexandria Rocks. “It’s the highlight of my week. I love the music, camaraderie and the friendship,” he said.
Jeanne Kelly, a longtime choral and orchestral conductor, began the nonprofit Encore Creativity for Older Adults in 2007.
She continues to lead the organization, which has grown in size and stature under her leadership.
“I love seeing people who have not sung for 40 years, or maybe ever, come back to it and learn about their voice,” she said. “They get so excited, they can’t get enough of it.”
The numerous choral groups operate on a semester basis, with fees for attendees (and tuition assistance for those who need). Fees help cover the cost of directors, rehearsal spaces, publicity for free concerts and operational expenses of the nonprofit.
Documented health benefits
Kelly began thinking about establishing the organization in 2001, when she took part in a study on the effects of singing on older adults. The late Dr. Gene Cohen, of George Washington University, led the Creativity and Aging study, the first to document health benefits in older adults involved in community arts programs.
Although Kelly had conducted older adult chorales for years, she was startled by the study’s results.
“We found these singers had fewer falls, fewer hospital visits, less need for long-term health care, much less depression and higher morale,” Kelly said. Her singers “all just want to do something challenging and learn — and be respected.”
It’s also clear that singers make friends at rehearsals. “There is a lot of isolation, especially among older adults, and Encore is quashing that,” she said.
Seven of the current chorales sing rock and roll, but 16 sing more traditional music from the American songbook, classical pieces and spirituals, all in four-part harmony. While singers must be at least 55, some have been as old as 103. At the chorus at Goodwin House, a Life Plan Community in Alexandria, Va., the average age is 87.
In September and January, at the start of each of two seasons, students get a packet of scores, CDs of the music, and 15 weeks of singing with a professional conductor at a cost ranging from $175 to $190. At the end of each season, singers perform in local concerts and on Dec. 26 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Singers may also attend summer camps and go on international tours. Next year there will be singing camps in the Colorado Rockies (July 19 to 23), at Chautauqua, New York (Aug. 30 to Sept. 4), Chestertown, Maryland (June 21 to 25), and in Cleveland for a visit to the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame (Aug. 9 to 13).
Most of these camps also include yoga classes, exercise programs, classes in voice technique, and concerts featuring professional musicians.
A tour of Ireland is scheduled for next May, with a performance at the Bealtaine Festival. (Participants don’t need to be members of an Encore chorus to go on the trip.)
Kelly’s Capital Encore Chorale rehearsals in Washington sound like a practice session of a big-time auditioned chorus. At one point, Kelly criticized the group for one passage, saying it “sounds like a typewriter. I don’t want it staccato. I want it smooth and legato.” Later, she said, “If you don’t have that rest circled in red, you are in big trouble!”
Kelly will give out compliments, but she’s not about to let the singers off easily. “We can’t be afraid of hurting their feelings because they’re older. They want to sound great,” she said.
Sight reading is not a prerequisite. Instead, professional conductors patiently teach singers how to interpret a music score if they haven’t done it before.
“If there are mistakes, we let them know,” said Lang, Alexandria Rocks’ substitute director. Many singers are retired movers and shakers from Washington, D.C., he said, and “these singers want to be challenged.”
For Anne Augusterfer, the Alexandria Rocks chorus is both a creative and a social outlet. “This was a great way to engage in things,” she said.
One singer, who has Parkinson’s disease, said she took up the music because she heard it was good for her condition. “When I went to a performance, I saw that those were my songs from the 60s, and I knew I had to join them.”
Mark Croswell, who retired three years ago, sings in both a rock chorus and a traditional chorale. Despite the tricky rhythms of rock music, Croswell said, the chorale is more challenging.
“It is easier to learn the rock music words because you may already know them,” he said. Croswell, who does not go to a summer program, said, “It’s always wrenching when the season ends.”
What’s next for Encore? The programs have spread to Baltimore and New York City. “We want to see Encore in every major city in the country,” Kelly said.