Part of the Aging Well Through Arts Special Report
The seed was planted when John Reinhart ran into a friend just back from Europe who described the trip: “Four-star hotels, the food was great and it was free.” It was one of the perks of being a member of the Young@Heart Chorus, a vibrant group of older adults who sing rock and roll and rhythm and blues. Reinhart’s interest was piqued, but at age 72, he was too young to sign up for the chorus, based in Northampton, Mass. You’ve got to be at least 73.
So a few years later, and a few years older, with nothing else to do, Reinhart — a strong tenor who sings in his church choir — went to watch a rehearsal. When chorus director Bob Cilman handed him some lyrics and asked him to sing for the group, he gave it a whirl. But back home, Reinhart thought. “I don’t know about this. I’ve never heard most of the music, including Prince and Pearl Jam. And a lot of it doesn’t even rhyme.”
“Betcha he won’t be back,” Cilman told Reinhart’s friend. But eventually, he did go back and soon he was singing a solo — Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror — and headed off on tour in Japan.
When I retired, I told my wife we’d better get a casket; I’ll be gone in six months. The Young@Heart Chorus came along at the right time for me.
— John Reinhart
Commitment to Quality
“It’s the best group I’ve ever been in in my entire life,” says Reinhart, now 80 and a six-year chorus veteran. “The group is almost like a family. We’re all ‘been there, done that,’ our kids are grown and we just have fun. When I retired, I told my wife we’d better get a casket; I’ll be gone in six months. The Young@Heart Chorus came along at the right time for me.”
It’s a big commitment to be an official member of the 30-member chorus. You have to mesh with the group and agree to actively stick with it for at least a year. This means rehearsing twice weekly and learning all the lyrics by heart.
In addition to the satisfaction of performing, the travel and the social connections, the chorus has a social mission that also gives members purpose. Once a week, Cilman and a few in the group go to the Hampshire County House of Corrections in Northampton.
The Prison Project
Their first visit was a performance that’s captured in a film about the group. It’s a moving scene as the chorus navigates the grassy courtyard and sings a Bob Dylan song to the inmates, a rendition of Forever Young dedicated to a recently deceased chorus member:
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
Something — some sort of connection — happened that day. Sheriff Bob Garvey, who runs the prison, noticed right away.
“Some people think I’m a flaming liberal,” he says, “but we’re not here to punish people. Our obligation is to give these inmates an opportunity to change, to deal with the issues that got them here, and music is therapeutic.”
That experience evolved into the Young@Heart Chorus’s Prison Project. Now, every week, chorus members visit the local men and women’s prisons — so inmates and chorus members can sing together.
Garvey estimates that at least 300 inmates have sung at rehearsals. Some also sing during performances at the prison with the choir backing them up.
Young@Heart soprano Lee Wilson, 75, remembers one inmate who wrote a song in memory of his mother who didn’t live to see him turn his life around.
“At first,” Wilson says, “he couldn’t sing it. But we coached and encouraged him, and he opened up and did it.”
The chorus continues to expand, evolve and inspire. Cilman, who founded the group in 1982, has plans to start Young@Heart choruses in Martha’s Vineyard, Portland and Miami. After a New Zealand tour, a similar chorus formed in Auckland. Another group sings in Quebec.
At a recent sold-out concert, Dora Morrow, who’s in her 90s, did a foot-stomping rendition of James Brown’s I Feel Good. The chorus belted out David Bowie’s Space Oddity wearing spacey costumes. They performed ColdPlay’s Fix Me. And they concluded with their signature song, that one they sang on the first prison visit a decade ago. As they gently swayed, arms held high, it felt like an anthem:
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
“People our age still have talent,” Wilson says. “Our getup and go didn’t get up and went.”
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