In These Choirs, Singers Needn’t Apply if They’re Under 55

10 years strong, Encore Creativity proves older adults love to sing

Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report

When Jeanne Kelly founded Encore Creativity in 2007, she thought she was starting a choir for adults 55 and older.

Little did she realize she was sparking a movement that is now 12 years in the making and continuing to grow.

Kelly is the executive and artistic director for Encore Creativity for Older Adults, a nonprofit dedicated to providing an excellent, accessible and sustainable artistic environment for adults over 55 that started with the Encore Chorale in Washington, D.C., and now includes 16 professionally directed Encore Chorales and seven Encore Rocks choirs across the country. The main Encore Chorale performs annually at the Kennedy Center.

Kelly realized she wanted to found the organization after she led an older-adult choir for the large-scale Creativity in Aging study, which was led by researcher Gene Cohen and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“I found from that experience that I loved working with older adults,” she said. “They did not have to be there. They wanted to be there.” Thinking about her parents’ experiences as they aged, Kelly realized they were rarely offered the opportunity to participate in strong music programs. She was inspired to take action and start her own.

A bedrock of Encore that exists still today: No auditions. Although Encore is directed by professional conductors and performances take places in top-of-the-line auditoriums, anyone can show up to rehearsal and join. And Encore is inclusive. If a person is unable to stand through a performance, he or she is welcome to sit and sing.

Understanding How Aging Can Affect Vocal Chords

Additionally, no previous experience is required to join Encore Creativity.

“We have some people who have never sung, and that is really exciting to me — that these are people who are coming to Encore to find something about themselves that they didn’t know,” she said.

Kelly herself has more than 40 years of experience as a professional musician and conductor. But she says she treats working with beginners the same way she treats working with people who have sung their entire lives (Encore choirs are made up of people with no experience to many years of it).

“You can’t bring inexperienced people in and let them feel frustrated, so you’re going into basics about vocal technique and musicianship. But as far as I’m concerned, those basics can never be heard enough,” she said.

In fact, Kelly said, even experienced singers often need different instruction in vocal technique later in life because aging — and the loneliness that often accompanies aging — affects the voice.

“Age brings a gravely voice and we talk about why that happens. Just as an older person who doesn’t smile much — maybe he or she lives alone and maybe doesn’t talk to people all week and come to rehearsal,” she said. “Just the cheekbones really being down and the soft pallet dropping, that will make a voice gravely. They learn all of that stuff. The vocal technique not only improves their singing ability, but it certainly improves their speaking voice.”

Choirs With High Expectations and Big Rewards

Carol Witherell and her husband, Tom, are Encore members who sing in the larger Chorale that Kelly directs and a smaller community chorale in their Virginia suburb. She said they enjoy the demands that placed on them. “It is such a joy to sing with Jeanne,” Carol said. “She really requires us to give our very best, but does it in such a fun way that we want to give her our very best.”

Jeffrey Dokken, associate artistic director of Encore Creativity and director of the Encore Rocks choruses, said singers are held to high expectations.

“What I have learned from my work with Encore is you can expect a lot of these older adults. There is a huge misperception of people’s (ability to learn and perform when we get older),” he said. “People in their 90s still have the ability, thirst for knowledge and passion to do this. And it’s so rewarding to see people getting to have experiences like the ones we offer through Encore.”

It is not always easy, said Tom Witherell, who said he was just a “piano bar singer” before joining Encore.

“I had to learn to sing the right part, and I had only sung melody up until that time, so that was challenging for me,” he said. “For some songs, you have to unlearn what you sang in the shower for 30 years and sing the way you are supposed to sing it. That has been an intellectual challenge for me, but I understand it now.”

Chorale member Jane Powers, who sings with the Anne Arundel County (Maryland) Encore group, said she was looking for something fun and new to do and discovered Encore. She had little previous experience singing and reading music, and it was a steep learning curve, but she loved the experience immediately.

“They say the older you get, you need to learn new things — learn a language or learn to play an instrument and just do something different — and that’s one of the things I was looking to do,” Powers said. “I have learned and I am using these parts of my brain that haven’t been used before to figure this all out and get up to speed with everyone else.”

But another bonus, she said, is the social aspect of the choir.

“I didn’t know a soul when I first started and now I have really good friends in Encore,” she said.

Performances in Professional Settings

Encore performances are a highlight for both singers and conductors. Kelly said Encore works to find state-of-the-art performance facilities and opportunities for the choirs.

“It’s such a kick to be on the stage at the Kennedy Center, but also to be able to say to people, ‘Oh yes, I have performed at the Kennedy Center,’” said Powers with a laugh. “My children are still in shock when I say that.”

Often, it is the music itself that makes a performance exciting, said Dokken.

“The first time we performed the Encore Rocks on stage, it was overwhelming — the audience went crazy,” he said, noting the group performs songs that run the gamut from The Beatles to Journey. “They were expecting this boring choral music and suddenly we had a rock band on stage. Jeanne and I love the smiles on the singers’ faces when they get that reaction — it’s just awesome.”

Although Encore Rocks performs popular rock music, the Chorales perform a range of choral music, from traditional to showtunes. Tom Witherell said he particularly enjoyed a showtunes concert where they performed Les Miserables.

“You will have audience members come up to you afterward with tears in their eyes sometimes,” he said. “It’s such great music. It is an honor to be able to sing it.”

In May 2017, the Encore Chorale combined eight of its area choir ensembles into a large group (700 of 1,000 people showed up to perform) and performed at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. in honor of its 10-year anniversary. Kelly said she was overcome when she started to conduct them in the rehearsal before the performance.

“I was so overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and the enormity of the sound, that I just broke down and cried,” she said. “Everyone thought, ‘She hates it,’  and I had to say, ‘I just can’t tell you how glorious this is.’”

‘A Place to Sing for the Rest of My Life’

Carol Witherell said Encore has afforded her a new sense of musicianship and hope for continuing to sing in the future. She said she would encourage anyone to just dive in and join, regardless of experience. (In fact, registration for fall 2017 is open now.)

“I’m 72 years old. It doesn’t matter that I’m 72. What matters is that I’m doing something that I have done since I was 2 years old. And the opportunity to sing with professional instruction in a very professional environment is wonderful,” she said. “We come away with a whole lot more than we give.”

She added, “And wow, there’s a place I can sing for the rest of my life.”

By Shayla Thiel Stern
Shayla is the former Director of Editorial and Content for Next Avenue at Twin Cities PBS.@shayla_stern

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