ST MARY'S CITY, Maryland — A decade ago, the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency which supports artists, began studying creativity and aging with three choral groups.
The agency's research ended years ago but the choral groups kept on singing and, led by a professional director, have flourished.
There are now 11 choral groups in the Washington area which belong to Encore Creativity for Older Adults, and one affiliate group in the Midwestern state of Ohio.
“We are trying to make this a national movement,” says Jeanne Kelly who founded and directs the program.
Singers don’t have to audition to join, and no experience is required.
Some have been singing all their lives. Others stopped singing to raise families and focus on careers. And some have never sung, because they were told they couldn’t.
“Many of them write to me and say, ‘All I want to do is learn how to sing so I won’t embarrass myself,’” Kelly says.
The 11 chorales all study the same repertoire, which makes it easy during concert season to combine them into a larger chorus, depending on the size of the concert hall.
Once the concert season is over, Kelly focuses on two summer programs, one at Chautauqua in New York, and another at St. Mary’s College in Maryland. Singers have only four days to learn five compositions before they perform for an audience.
Jeanne Heather, 82, has attended the summer institute in St. Mary’s since it began five years ago.
”They teach us here, not only about the music, but how to sing, and how to sing better," Heather says. "And they don’t really get mad if you miss a note.”
Margo Newhouse, 74, who joined Encore a year ago after recovering from a fall, says the summer program has been therapeutic. “I was very tired each day at the end of the day, and it was a healthy tiredness, which I am sure has helped me with my activity level.”
The 2001 research that launched Encore proved it would be beneficial, Kelly says. The study compared 150 participants to a control group of inactive seniors.
The singers who worked with her, “had much higher morale, suffered much less depression. They took fewer medications. They had fewer falls. They saw the doctor less.”
Today, there are more than 550 singers in Encore. The average age is 73, but some are in their 90s.
Proof, Kelly says, that you're never too old to sing.