The Sounds Good choir sounded good even at rehearsal on Wednesday, Nov. 16. The group meets weekly in a large, bright, second floor room in the First Presbyterian Church on Chicago Avenue.
The choir is for older adults, (55-plus) who wish to enhance their well-being through music. It is called “dementia-friendly,” meaning singers with early-stage memory loss are welcomed. Everyone sings masked and all must have proof of vaccination and boosters.
After warmups, the rehearsal opened with a delightful version of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” (from Oklahoma) complete with enthusiastic hand motions. Enlarged lyrics are held aloft at the front by two singing volunteers. Lucky me, as Wednesday’s rehearsal was a complete run-through of the free holiday concert the choir is presenting at 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, in the main sanctuary of First Presbyterian.
The view on both sides of the lovely rehearsal room is of tree tops, with chandeliers dotting the ceiling. Chairs are set up in advance. A fine copy of Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia faces the choir from over a mantle, in an elaborate gold frame and, unfortunately, a plexiglass “security” box.
Helen Gagel, coordinator for Sounds Good, said, “Singers with memory loss must bring a care-partner with them. A care-partner could be a spouse, family friend or a professional caregiver. Volunteers sit with those singers helping navigate the music. Some might lose their place or have trouble turning pages. Often the care-partners love to sing too, and do so, but it’s not a requirement.”
“A Sounds Good volunteer may have had some family experience with dementia and wants to help others with it,” said Gagel. ”You certainly can’t tell, by looking, who has dementia and who is the partner.” And some folks just come to sing. I happen to know four people from my own church choir who were there just because they love to sing, not partnering or volunteering with anyone.
Sounds Good was founded by Dr. Jonathan Miller, a singer, composer, conductor, arranger, artistic director and chief executive, and his wife, Dr. Sandy Miller, a clinical psychologist and the choir’s program manager. Jonathan Miller was founder and conductor of the Chicago a cappella choir for 26 years and is now their artistic director emeritus.
The concept for a choral program for older adults comes from Encore, a choral program in Washington, D.C. The Millers wanted to bring the idea to Chicago. Meanwhile, a 2006 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, “Creativity & Aging,” reported that group singing experiences – more so than drama or the visual arts – have a dramatic, positive impact on older adults, particularly those with memory loss.
The Millers wanted to incorporate singers with early-stage memory loss. Their first choral group in 2018 devoted to such singers was called Good Memories. They met, and still meet, in Chicago where they perform at the Fourth Presbyterian Church, corner of East Chestnut Street and Michigan Avenue.
In the fall of 2016, the Millers brought the Encore concept to Evanston. They added the Good Memories idea in Evanston in 2019, combining into one, dementia-friendly choir. Pam Butterfield, a singer and volunteer, has been with that chorus since its beginning. A former licensed clinical social worker in the Evanston schools, she joined because she just loved to sing, but she volunteers because of life experience.
”We used to meet as a small group of 10 or so in the Falcon Room at the Evanston Library,” Butterfield said. “When we decided to invite singers with early memory loss, the group changed its name to Good Memories, but now that we’re completely integrated we’re called Sounds Good.” She added, ”It has been so gratifying to see what a difference singing can make – in attitude, outlook, participation. It’s like an intervention – it engages and grounds people with memory issues.”
Wednesday’s rehearsal was conducted alternately by Jonathan Miller and by Hannah Dixon McConnell, director of music and worship at Evanston’s First Presbyterian. They both handled the group with clear direction and upbeat humor. I heard the command “Watch the conductor and your whole life works!” from Miller as well as a smiling “Resist the temptation to talk between numbers…” several times.
All singing, even warmups, are accompanied by professional pianist Amy Wurtz. Selections were varied – some I’d never heard before (“Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” from 1940, a Spanish carol called “A Christmas Gloria,” a Jewish folk song of praise, a new piece composed by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo and and a 2014 medley titled “A Wreath of Carols”).
During the pandemic, Sounds Good introduced recordings, Zoom rehearsals, practice tracks and support for online strugglers. Musician Paul Langford, a conductor, composer, arranger, singer and technology whiz, set it all up. He still runs the online rehearsals that are held every Friday with regular attendance of 20 to 30.
They are supplementary to the in-person weekly rehearsals, although there is an option to attend only online. There are also one-hour themed singalongs, separate from the online rehearsals.
Sandy Miller came up with the idea of Zoom “coffee chats” during the pandemic when social isolation became a serious problem. The hour-long chats engaged and provided social contact for many singers with early-stage memory loss, creating connections and community. Jonathan Miller said, “There were some serious conversations as well.”
There are seven Sounds Good choirs in Chicago and suburbs, including Good Memories. The repertoire is conveniently the same in all the groups. That makes it possible for singers from any Sounds Good choir to join in the others’ concerts. There are 40-plus area concerts a year any singer could sing in – should one have the stamina.
The organization is a non-profit with many donors giving generous support. Donations cover sheet music, rents, rehearsals, Zoom calls, weekly sing-alongs and compensation to the professional artists involved. The fee to join is $195 for 15 weeks (including a care-partner). Scholarships reducing the fee to $50 are available. The Presbyterian Church provides easy accessibility: free parking, an elevator to the second floor and other amenities. No audition is required.
Wednesday’s rehearsal closed with a full rendition of “Happy Trails” (by Roy Rogers & Dale Evans), again with lyrics held on high, with movement and a few hugs at the finish.
Audience attending the holiday concert at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 3, must be vaccinated for COVID-19 but need not have had the latest covid booster. Admission is free to the First Presbyterian Church, 1427 Chicago Ave..