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Jeanne Kelly: A Joyful Song for Older Adults

Encore Creativity thrives under the direction of this 2018 Influencer in Aging


Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report

Jeanne Kelly, a 2018 Influencer in Aging, is the founder and artistic director of Encore, the nation’s largest choral organization specifically for adults ages 55 and older, based in Maryland. Encore features 15 chorales and 6 Encore ROCKS rock and roll choruses in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area. Encore also has chorales in several other cities including New York City, Santa Clarita, Calif., Denver, Chicago and Reading, Pa. There are more than 2,000 singers involved in Encore across the country. Kelly is a vocal performer, conductor and teacher.

Next Avenue: Encore aims to offer participants ‘artistic excellence, mental, emotional, and physical improvements.’ In your role, how do you see these elements manifested in the singers?

We aspire to all of these goals. The singers — some who are in their 90s — have something great to look forward to each week, and this expectation offers mental benefits.

Physically, the best thing you can do for your lungs is to sing. When you sing, you breathe lower into your lung cavity with some of our singers, their doctors have observed lung improvement. We also talk a lot about posture and core. As we age, it’s easy for the core to get soft, and this can cause people to start stooping over.

The social and emotional benefits are enormous. Many people come to our choirs after the loss of a spouse or partner and are looking for ways to get past their grief. Here, they can meet new people and work together. And in terms of artistic excellence — our concerts are just superb.

Building community around the shared passion for singing is another benefit of Encore. Why do you think this is so vital for older adults?

I believe that isolation is one of the worst diseases, and as we age, it’s inevitable that we’ll start losing friends. Encore offers the opportunity for teamwork, which starts to disappear as we get older. And friendships happen, marriages happen. Being in Encore really becomes a new lifestyle for the participants.

Our program is all about the singers. It’s so wonderful to see them build self-esteem and confidence. I love looking at their faces as they are singing because you can see by their expressions that they know they are getting better at it.

Tell us about the Summer Sleep-Away Camps. 

When I was a kid, I always loved going to ice skating camp — there was just this great sense of exploration and the fun of being away. So many people have those kinds of fond memories about camp, so this is an opportunity to live this childhood experience all over again. We let our kids send us to camp!

We’ve been doing the Encore camps for 11 years. This is the first year we’ve offered Encore ROCKS camp, which was held in Annapolis, and we had 120 singers, so it was very successful.

Our campers are really busy from morning to night. They can begin the day with either a yoga or an exercise class, and then go on to the first of two rehearsals for the day. They also participate in a class on a topic such as vocal technique. In the evening, we bring in professional musicians, singers and others to perform.

At the end of the week, the campers put on a show, which includes a camp song they have written. It’s a wonderful experience.

Encore was launched in 2007. Since that time, what have you learned about working with older adults in a chorale setting?

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is not to baby these singers — they want the rigor of the rehearsals and want a demanding experience. You have to do it with humor and a lot of patience, but they love to know that somebody believes in them. Some people have sung their entire lives, some haven’t sung for 20, 30, 40 years, and now it’s their time. Occasionally, we’ll have people join who’ve never sung in their lives but always wanted to sing.

We don’t hold auditions, and no experience is necessary. We have a rehearsal each week. Every singer is given a rehearsal CD before the start of the session and they are expected to practice — and they do. Sometimes, I’ll be walking through the parking lot before a rehearsal and see singers practicing in their cars!

We have a range of talent when it comes to our singers, but they all work hard. And Encore is all about the singers, not about the conductors. We just have to be up there waving our arms!

Over the years, are there any particular performances or experiences that have been memorable for you?

I would have to say that my most favorite performance was our 10th anniversary concert in 2017. We had 700 Encore singers, and we sang at the DAR Concert Hall in Washington, D.C. There had never been a concert with that many singers at DAR before.

We did a wide range of pieces including Let There Be Music, music from Porgy & Bess and Les Miserablesand You Make Me Feel So Young. For me, it was truly a heart-stopping moment.

And I’m also excited about the fact that we’re going to Radio City Music Hall to open a performance of the 2018 Rockettes Christmas Spectacular; we will be performing two songs. We’ll have some Encore singers from New York, and bring others on a bus from the Baltimore area.

What brings you the most joy in your role?

Every year, Encore offers two 15-week sessions; one runs from September to December, the other from late January to May. I like starting at week one, when some of the singing is tricky, and by the time we get to week 15, I just love hearing everyone sing. They have so much hope and pride in what they have accomplished. The total joy they have found in singing, it’s so wonderful.

All of our concerts are free and I love that they can invite their friends and family to see them up on stage in their concert black attire and watch them perform. It’s spectacular.

By Julie Pfitzinger
Julie has worked as a writer and editor for more than 20 years; most recently she was a managing editor for the community lifestyle magazine group at Tiger Oak Media in Minneapolis, where she also served as editor of Saint Paul Magazine. Julie can be reached via email at [email protected]    Follow her on Twitter @juliepfitzinger.

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