The Sounds Good choir sounded great even during rehearsal on Wednesday, November 16. The group meets weekly in a large, bright room on the second floor of the First Presbyterian Church on Chicago Avenue.
The choir is aimed at seniors (55 and over) who wish to improve their well-being through music. It’s called “dementia friendly,” meaning singers with early-stage memory loss are welcome. Everyone sings masked and everyone must have proof of vaccination and reminders.
After the warm-ups, the rehearsal opened with a delightful version of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” (from “Oklahoma”) with enthusiastic hand movements. Enlarged lyrics are held aloft in the front by two singing volunteers. Fortunately, because Wednesday’s rehearsal was a full rehearsal for the free holiday concert the choir presents at 3 p.m. on December 3, in the main sanctuary of First Presbyterian.
The view from both sides of the pretty rehearsal room is that of the treetops, with chandeliers dotting the ceiling. The chairs are installed in advance. A fine copy of Raphael’s “Madonna della Sedia” faces the choir over a mantle, in an elaborate gold frame and, sadly, a Plexiglas “safety” box.
Helen Gagel, coordinator of Sounds Good, said: “Singers with memory loss should be accompanied by a care partner. A care partner can be a spouse, family friend, or professional caregiver. Volunteers sit with these singers to help navigate the music. Some might lose their place or have trouble turning the pages. Often, care partners like to sing too, and do, but it’s not a requirement.
“A Sounds Good volunteer may have had a family experience with dementia and wants to help others with it,” Gagel said. “You certainly can’t tell, by looking, who has dementia and who the partner is.” And some people just come and sing. I happen to know four people from my own church choir who were there simply because they love to sing, not in partnership or volunteering with anyone.
Sounds Good was founded by Dr. Jonathan Miller, singer, composer, bandleader, arranger, artistic director and general manager, and his wife, Dr. Sandy Miller, clinical psychologist and choir program manager. Jonathan Miller was the founder and conductor of Chicago a cappella for 26 years and is now its artistic director emeritus.
The concept of a choral program for seniors came from “Encore”, a choral program in Washington, D.C. The Millers wanted to bring this idea to Chicago. Meanwhile, a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) study, “Creativity & Aging,” published in 2006, showed that group singing experiences (more so than theater or visual arts) had a dramatic impact and positive about the elderly. , especially those with memory loss.
The Millers wanted to incorporate singers with early memory loss. Their first choral group, 2018, dedicated to such singers was called “Good Memories”. They met, and still meet, in Chicago where they perform at the 4th Presbyterian Church on the corner of East Chestnut St. and Michigan Ave.
In the fall of 2016, the Millers brought the Encore concept to Evanston. They added the Good Memories idea to Evanston in 2019, combining into one dementia-friendly choir. Pam Butterfield, singer and volunteer, has been part of this choir since its inception. A former licensed clinical social worker at Evanston Schools, she joined because she just loved to sing, but volunteers because of her life experience.
She said: “We used to meet in a small group of around 10 people in the Falcon Room at Evanston Library. When we decided to bring in singers with early memory loss, the band changed their name to Good Memories, but now that we’re fully integrated, we call ourselves Sounds Good. She added: “It’s been so rewarding to see the difference singing can make – in attitude, perspective, participation. It’s like an intervention – it engages and motivates people with memory problems.
Wednesday’s rehearsal was led alternately by Jonathan Miller and by Hannah Dixon McConnell, director of music and worship at Evanston’s First Presbyterian. They both managed the group with clear direction and upbeat humor. I heard the command “Look at the conductor and your whole life works!” from Miller as well as a smiling “Resist the temptation to talk between the numbers…” repeatedly.
All vocals, even warm-ups, are accompanied by professional pianist Amy Wurtz. The selections were varied – some I had never heard before (“Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” from 1940, a Spanish carol titled “A Christmas Gloria”, a Jewish folk song of praise, a new piece composed by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo and a 2014 medley titled “A Wreath of Carols”).
During the pandemic, Sounds Good introduced recordings, Zoom repeats, workout tracks and support for online wrestlers. Musician Paul Langford, bandleader, composer, arranger, singer and tech expert, put it all together. He still leads the online rehearsals which take place every Friday with a regular attendance of 20-30.
They are in addition to the weekly in-person rehearsals, although it is possible to attend only on line. There are also hour-long theme songs, separate from online rehearsals.
Sandy Miller came up with the idea of ”coffee chatting” on Zoom during the pandemic, when social isolation became a serious issue. The hour-long talks engaged and provided social contact for many singers with early-stage memory loss, creating bonding and community. Jonathan Miller said: “There were serious conversations as well.”
There are seven Sounds Good choirs in the city of Chicago and its suburbs, including Good Memories. The repertoire is conveniently the same in all groups. This allows singers from any Sounds Good choir to join in with each other’s concerts. There are more than 40 concerts in the region a year, in which any singer could sing – if one had the stamina.
The organization is a 501c3 nonprofit, with many donors providing generous support. Donations cover sheet music, rent, rehearsals, zooms, weekly sing-alongs, and compensation for the professional artists involved. Membership fees are $195 for 15 weeks (including a care partner). Scholarships reducing the fee to $50 are available. The Presbyterian Church offers easy access: free parking, elevator to the second floor and other amenities. No hearing is required.
Wednesday’s rehearsal ended with a full rendition of “Happy Trails” (by Roy Rogers & Dale Evans), again with lyrics held high, with movement and a few hugs at the end.
Audiences attending the Holiday Concert on Saturday, December 3 at 3 p.m. must be vaccinated against Covid-19 but do not need to have had the latest covid booster. Admission is free at First Presbyterian Church, 1427 Chicago Ave., Evanston.