'We Keep Everybody Singing': MacPhail's Music for Life Keeps Seniors in Tune

MacPhail, Music for Life, MacPhail Center for Music, Sing for Life, Play for Life, the Giving Voice chorus
MacPhail’s Music for Life™ aims to make music inclusive for all.

When one thinks of music programs, high school or college might come to mind, while elders might miss out on a music community. In 2005, Jeanie Brindley-Barnett had the idea to change that. She co-founded MacPhail’s Music for Life™ Program.

The program focuses on bringing music to elders wherever they are. Classes are held at MacPhail’s building in downtown Minneapolis, and in assisted living, independent living and memory care communities throughout the metro area.

MacPhail began working with senior communities in the Twin Cities in 2005. In 2007, Brindley-Barnett saw that the program would be ideal for elders living in memory care communities. The program was officially launched in 2008. Music for Life classes on site at MacPhail began in 2013.

“Working in memory care is very interesting for me because I’m … interested in music and the brain,” says Brindley-Barnett, who is a senior teaching artist with Music for Life. Initially, Brindley-Barnett was afraid that people would not think she was qualified to do this work because she didn’t have a music therapy degree, but she was welcomed by both the communities she was working in and the professional music therapists.

“I was lucky to work closely with Melissa Wenszell,” Brindley-Barnett says of MacPhail’s music therapy director. Brindley-Barnett says she is very appreciative of the dedication and generosity of all MacPhail’s music therapists.

Brindley-Barnett says that providing therapeutic experiences created a wonderful sense of camaraderie between her fellow professional teaching artists and their music therapist colleagues.

The biggest turning point was when programming began being held at the MacPhail Center for Music “with extra support from Aroha Philanthropies through their Aroha Vitality + Art program,” says Brindley-Barnett.

Music for Life focuses on participants ages 55 and up. Brindley-Barnett knew people wanted to be able to continue their music educations even when they no longer wanted the rigorous schedule that sometimes goes along with typical choirs. “We keep everybody singing,” says Brindley-Barnett.

Other music classes that are part of MacPhail’s Music for Life™ offerings include Sing for Life, Play for Life and the Giving Voice chorus. There are keyboard and guitar classes in addition to voice labs. Brindley-Barnett is hopeful that the program will add ukulele and drumming classes.

There is yet another opportunity for elders to sing. “Side by Side is a well-respected program which offers the full spectrum of life,” says Brindley-Barnett. Students from preschool through high school sing with the Music for Life groups, allowing different generations to come together and interact in meaningful ways, says Brindley-Barnett.

For elders interested in performing, Music for Life has a program that puts singers on the stage. Brindley-Barnett says that one of her most rewarding experiences since starting Music for Life was when Stewart MacPhail, the son of MacPhail Center for Music’s founder, who was 87 at the time, said he wanted to take voice lessons with her and asked if it would be okay if he brought a few friends along.

What Brindley-Barnett assumed would just be three or four others turned out to be 75 people waiting for her at the MacPhail Center. The group that MacPhail gathered turned into the Sing for Life choir. Brindley-Barnett says that thinking about their first performance together still makes her feel very emotional.

This past May, Sing for Life celebrated its 10th anniversary, performing Broadway hits with close to 70 singers. Brindley-Barnett says that there were nearly as many men as there were women, something which is unusual in retirement communities.

Brindley-Barnett says that one of the monumental moments in Music for Life’s growth was when in 2014, she was asked to be music director for those with early-onset dementia. Although she was hesitant at first, Brindley-Barnett realized the importance taking this role would have on Music for Life. “I was ready for the challenge,” she says.

The choir soon became known as the Giving Voice Chorus. Their concerts’ songs fit the singers and their experiences, say Brindley-Barnett. Participants sign up for the chorus in pairs—the elder who is in memory care and a family member or caregiver.

Organizing rehearsals was initially intimidating, says Brindley-Barnett, but she realized she would be able to handle whatever she was given. She says that the involvement of families in the Giving Voices Chorus has been an enormous help in making the rehearsals successful.

“We have a grandson that comes with his grandfather. We have two sisters [and] we have spouses,” she says. Families participate in the choir itself based on their comfort level and the comfort level of the singers.

Wherever the program takes them, Brindley-Barnett says, “The teachers want to get to know the residents to be able know what rings true to them when it comes to music. The teachers want to establish a partnership so everyone can have the best experience possible.”

“With these partnerships, you fall in love with the staff and the people. We have over 40 senior partnerships. There are over 80 classes throughout the Twin Cities, with over 2,000 participants. The Ebenezer Minneapolis senior living community is the most popular partnership,” says Brindley-Barnett. “We are so lucky that we established these relationships with our partners and they continue to want us to come to their independent living and assisted living.”

Ebenezer was one of Music for Life’s first partnerships, says Brindley-Barnett. She finds the relationship powerful and important because the senior living community’s management allocates money in their budget for music, dance and visual arts programming. Brindley-Barnett says Ebenezer’s decision to fund arts programming was pioneering and improved the lives of Ebenezer residents.

One aspect of the program residents greatly enjoy is the MacPhail Hour, says Brindley-Barnett. Faculty members perform pieces of their choice, explaining the background of each piece and why they chose it, with the residents having a chance to participate in a Q&A session after the performance.

The MacPhail Hour is an ongoing event, with 12 Music for Life sites participating. Brindley-Barnett says that the frequency of the MacPhail Hour varies with each location, but most hold it about once a month. Residents’ families are invited to watch. “It’s very popular,” Brindley-Barnett says. “We love it, but also our main intent is to have older adults be the music makers. They’re the ones that are continuing to learn and demonstrate the joy of music-making.”

Music for Life classes in assisted living communities are often held weekly, says Brindley-Barnett, but some hold classes twice a month, depending on the allocated funding.

Brindley-Barnett says that many retirement communities are now budgeting for Music for Life, along with other arts programs, in their wellness programs. She says the communities are respecting the importance of the arts and allowing their residents to participate and enjoy this respect as well.

One of Brindley-Barnett’s main goals for Music for Life was to make music accessible to all age groups. While bringing the music program to assisted living communities was a large step in the right direction, Brindley-Barnett wanted to take it further. She designed a format where every participant gets a binder with printed lyrics. The songs are organized so that participants can easily find them. Even if the residents don’t read music, the lyrics correspond to the measures of music so the singers can follow along easily, say Brindley-Barnett.

“It’s a good thing I’m a composer, because you need to make certain modifications to the music, so you’re not flip-flopping measures,” she says, adding that reading music can become a challenge as one gets older. “You can’t have sopranos hitting high E anymore.”

Those interested in participating in Music for Life who don’t live in an assisted living or other community can participate in classes at MacPhail’s downtown Minneapolis location. All registrations are done online.

Brindley-Barnett says that since its first semester, the program has tripled in size. She feels great joy about how the program has evolved. “Music for Life went from just me to adding other teaching artists and a technician,” she says.

Now there are currently 12 other professional teaching artists on the roster and five music therapists, and if Brindley-Barnett’s predictions are correct, Music for Life will grow even more.

MacPhail Music for Life
501 S. Second St., Minneapolis
612.321.0110
Facebook: MacPhail Center for Music
Twitter: @macphailmusic
Instagram: @macphailmusic