The chorus belted out inspired versions of “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Climb Every Mountain,” old favorites that brought smiles to the faces of those doing the singing.
But the weekly gathering of the Joyful Voices Chorus at Salisbury Presbyterian Church is about much more than making music. In the chorus of almost 40, there are eight with dementia, while the remainder are singing caregivers and volunteer singers who can provide assistance when needed. The welcoming and empathetic environment makes for the sort of positive social experience that too often is unavailable for people with dementia.
“Every time Mom gets in the car [to go to chorus] — and I mean every single time — she’ll get in and say, ‘I just love going there. Everybody is so friendly,’” said Sue Weber of her mother, Sue Lefko. “In the morning when we’re getting ready, it’s a little bit of a drudgery as we’re trying to get moving and get out the door, but as soon as we walk in here she just lightens up, and it continues even we get back [home]. Her mood is just lifted.”
The public is invited to Joyful Voices’ spring concert, which will be at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in Salisbury Presbyterian’s fellowship hall. Tickets are $10.
Joyful Voices Chorus is a nonprofit organization that was conceived and developed by Salisbury Presbyterian’s music leadership and is an outreach mission of the Midlothian church, but it stands on its own — a registration fee of $50 is required of singers — and is not formally a part of the church. It is a community chorus, not a church choir, and the music is not religious, though it is spirited.
In fact, the idea for Joyful Voices came from a 2017 conference of choral directors in Minneapolis attended by Salisbury director of music Mark Patterson. One of the sessions featured a concert by Giving Voice Chorus, a program of the Giving Voice Initiative in Minneapolis-St. Paul that brings together people with dementia and their caregivers to improve their quality of life through singing together.
Patterson had not heard of such a program, but it dawned on him that when members of the Salisbury choir had developed dementia over the years, accommodations had been made — arranging their folders of music, seating them next to a singer who could help them — in order to keep them singing.
He was struck that no matter how confused the singers with dementia might get about things, such as how they arrived at church for rehearsal, when the music started they were “singing just fine, absolutely right on pitch.
“Something was happening in the music,” he said. “The rest of their world was pretty fuzzy, but the musical part of their brains was still going really strong. That was a powerful lesson for me.”
As he sat and listened to the Giving Voice Chorus in Minneapolis and heard its story, he thought, “We’re already doing this in so many ways.”
He brought the idea home to Joanne Sherman, director of Salisbury Presbyterian’s music academy, and pianist Laura Miles, the church’s assistant music director, and all agreed it was a project worth pursuing. They flew back to Minnesota to research Giving Voice and then set to work to make it happen here. Patterson serves as the president of the nonprofit’s board, while Sherman is the artistic director and Miles, the group’s accompanist.
The premise of the program is based on research cited by Giving Voice that “areas of the brain that recall music and nurture singing are among the last to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease.” One study has shown that while people sing, “memories are produced that contribute to self-discovery, self-understanding and identity”; another study showed memory and mood in people with dementia significantly improved when they took part in regular singing or listening to music.
Joyful Voices Chorus was launched last September with weekly, hour-long rehearsals. The program is not a sing-along but an actual choral experience with various musical parts and instrumentals that leaves all involved with “a true feeling of accomplishment,” Sherman said. The repertoire includes a variety of music, but old favorites tend to resonate best with the singers.
“We do try to reach into the past and dig out those memories,” Sherman said. “We’re reaching down to where those feelings of safety and security are and just make them comfortable each week.
“The purpose of the chorus is to give the singer and the caregiver a joint activity where they can get out, they can socialize and they can bond with others who are sharing the same experiences.”
Volunteers come from the church and the community and have received training through the Greater Richmond chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
There’s no skill level required for the singers, though it certainly might appeal to those with a history of singing, Sherman said.
Sue Lefko sang in a group in high school and in later years learned to play the guitar along with her son. At Joyful Voices, she sings alongside a volunteer, Carole Wyncoop, who’s there to help whenever she needs it. Lefko said singing in the chorus “makes me feel very good, especially if I know all the words.”
Which she usually does, her daughter said.
“That’s the amazing thing about music,” Sue Weber said. “I watch her, and she knows all the words. It’s been a great program. Wonderful.”
Jude Hiesley is “a natural” when it comes to music, said her husband, Bill.
“She used to play the piano,” he said. “She couldn’t read music, but she could hear a song and play.”
Now with the help of volunteer Julia Fisher, she’s been singing every week with Joyful Voices.
“I love to sing,” she said. “I don’t sing well, but I love to sing.”
Bill Hiesley is, by his own acknowledgment, not a singer, so he sits in the audience, enjoys the music and chats with other caregivers. It’s a nice respite for both of them.
“She looks forward every Thursday to this,” Bill Hiesley said. “Everybody here is always so nice, and she gets to sing.”