Minneapolis-based VocalEssence recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. VocalEssence engages people of all ages and cultures through choral music programming. They perform in ensembles, provide school curricula and about four years ago they began Vintage Voices, an initiative to engage elders in choral music.
The group’s conductor Rob Graham says, “Vintage Voices gives older adults in independent and assisted living communities, adult day centers and senior centers the opportunity to sing in a choir.”
A sense of loss, isolation, depression and anxiety are some of the difficult feelings that can be associated with aging. “We have a lot of people who aren’t living in their own homes anymore. Maybe they’re not driving. They maybe have close friends and spouses who have passed away,” says Graham. Singing, especially with a group of peers, can be an effective antidote.
Choruses typically involve 12 weeks of rehearsals and a performance for family, friends and staff. Most participants are those who are more independent, though the program is open to all singers, regardless of ability or musical background, says Graham.
There are no auditions for Vintage Voices, says Graham. “As the conductor, I prepare music that’s accessible to the level of the group. If we don’t have the voices to do four-part harmony, we’ll do two-part. This way, singers can feel challenged, and they can also feel dignified and successful,” says Graham.
Vintage Voices chorus members come with a range of experience. “We have people with many years of singing in choirs, and people who are first trying it out at age 85. It’s really magical to have both groups singing together. We focus on the process of making music together."
Graham does his best to choose music that will be enjoyed by all. “We want to encourage as many singers to participate as possible. We sing a variety of music with songs that appeal to all people,” Graham says.
The level of difficulty varies between groups, says Graham. When a group first gets together, Graham has people fill out a profile sheet with questions like whether or not they know their voice part, and asks them to check all the music they enjoy singing or listening to.
Graham says that he treats the rehearsals for Vintage Voices the way he would a choir rehearsal with singers of any age, but he takes needs such as vision and hearing into account. He provides large print sheet music with large print lyrics. If participants can’t read music, they can just use the lyrics.
Singing is good for physical, mental, social and emotional health, says Graham. “Singing is great because it raises endorphins and decreases stress hormones like cortisol. It’s an outlet to make new friends or solidify friendships. When people are singing, they don’t have to be defined by things that are associated with aging,” Graham says.
"Singing with a group of peer brings connection, and the sheer joy of making music together," says Graham.