In 2001, Jeanne Kelly was asked by the National Endowment for the Arts to head up a choral program to study older adult singers who had the opportunity to sing under the tutelage of a professional conductor.
“We found out that after one year of singing, these adults had fewer falls, fewer doctor’s visits, took less medication and had better morale,” said Kelly, a professional singer, who taught voice for seven years at Hood College in the 1980s.
She was so impressed by the results of the study that in 2007 she founded the Encore Creativity for Older Adults program, a chorale program for adults 55 and older.
This September the program came to Frederick for the first time. The Frederick Encore Chorale is one of 17 such groups in the Washington-Baltimore area. There are also six affiliate groups in such cities as Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Denver.
The local chorale held its first rehearsal on Sept. 10 at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Elmer Derr Road in Frederick. The group practices each Thursday morning for 15 weeks and plans to perform concerts around the Frederick area.
“I love working with older adults,” said Deborah Int Veldt, conductor of the local group. “It is very rewarding to know it is very important for them to do this. People tell me it is a social event. It is the highlight of their week. I think I found my niche.”
IntVeldt, who has worked with seniors in the past, said she might have to talk a little slower when she works with the older singers. But she sets high standards.
Her husband, Nick, is her accompanist and plays the piano during the Thursday rehearsals.
“Older people can be disconnected and this is a very good way for them to connect,” he said. “We want to challenge them, exercise their minds. It keeps them younger.”
Expression through song
George Ruszat, of Frederick, first suggested bringing the program here. He was a member of an Encore choral group at the Smithsonian last year.
“I enjoyed the Encore concept and wanted them to start one in Frederick,” the 75-year-old said. “It gives seniors ways to express themselves. Most of these people have sung all their lives and this allows them to continue on.”
So far, about 25 people have signed up for the local group.
“I am really happy that we started with 25,” said Deborah IntVeldt, who taught middle and high school music in Montgomery County. “I would like to double that.”
She said some of the 25 singers have not sung in long time and were a little overwhelmed at first.
Sam Keiter is 84 years old and a resident of Buckingham’s Choice in Frederick. He said he sang as a young man, but then gave it up for up for a long time before starting to sing again in 2000.
“I like to sing and I thought this would be good to do this,” he said. “So far I enjoy it.”
“I hadn’t sung with any group for about 40 years and I thought it was about time I started,” said Cathy James, a recently retired drama teacher. “I thought this group looked like a neat opportunity and decided to try it.”
Bonnie Clowes heard about Encore from Deborah IntVeldt.
“She sent me an email and I decided to come out,” the 62-year-old said. “I enjoy it, it’s lots of fun.”
‘They need to have music in their lives’
The program is geared toward seniors. All rehearsals are held in the morning.
“We had one singer that was 103,” Kelly said.
She said she has had singers who were blind, needed hearing aids or walkers. She will accommodate them as much as she can.
She also said singing helps people with dementia.
“They need to have music in their lives,” she said. “It can help starve off dementia. It keeps them young.”
Kelly said there is a cost of $150 for each 15 week session. Financial aid is available.
According to Kelly, the Encore program is the largest of its type in the country with more than 800 members.
She decided on starting the Frederick group after talking with Ruszat.
“George really wanted us to do something in Frederick, he pushed this,” Kelly said.
She then contacted Noel Lester, who was the head of the music department at Hood College when she worked there in the 1980s.
“Through Noel I found out about Deborah and Nick,” she said. “I talked to them and we got the ball rolling.”
‘You just have to love to sing’
Since the IntVeldts were members of the Unitarian Universalist Church and had worked with the choir there, Kelly decided to hold rehearsals at the church every Thursday.
Practices begin at 10:30 a.m. and last for an hour and a half.
Kelly said there are three types of older people who join the group — those who have sung their entire life, those who find their voices change as they get older and those who have not sung in a long time and want to get back into it.
“We feel it’s never too late to improve your voice,” she said. “You just have to love to sing.”
There are no auditions.
The chorale sings all types of music, from Broadway songs to opera to rock and roll.
“We make it work somehow,” she said.
Encore offers two 15-week sessions from September to December and December to May.
Other Encore Chorales put on concerts throughout the Washington-Baltimore area and the program has been featured in several national publications and television programs.
In December, Encore members will perform at the Kennedy Center.
But for Kelly, the idea behind the group is to give older people a chance to sing.
“Many times older adult singers are not respected,” she said. “They are not challenged. Encore treats older people just as they would younger singers. We challenge and push them. We have high expectations. As you age, it is so important to do something that matters.”