It was Recital Day. The singers were seated, wearing black and white. Vocal coach Caroline Murphy Turco was warming up, greeting participants and checking lyrics pages. Singers smiled and said ‘hi’ to one another in greeting; looks of excitement were evident. Some participants were present one minute, then gazing absently away the next – a sign of their dementia. The large community room was filling up quickly.
The small group of singers and residents at Beth Sholom Terrace’s memory wing had come a long way from a year before, when the idea of a vocal singing group in a long-term care community was being formed.
In July 2012, Tidewater Arts Outreach ED MaryAnn Toboz approached Warren Aleck, a long-time TAO supporter, with the idea. Warren and MaryAnn reached out to the Tidewater Jewish Foundation and Beth Sholom Village, and soon we met with Philip Rovner, David Abramson and Allison Whiteman to outline what would become a year-long chorus project. David and Allison decided that their memory unit residents at the Beth Sholom Terrace would be ideal for this group. A proposal was created and TAO secured the Caroline’s services. Caroline, a young opera singer and vocal coach who gives singing lessons privately and through Hurrah Players, met with senior singers twice each month. Together they worked on breath, posture, reading lyrics, vocal warm-ups and SINGING. They sang oldies, Broadway tunes, pop hits of yesteryear and the Beatle’s “Yellow Submarine” (a favorite). Tentative at first, as the weeks went on singers became more confident.
Beth Sholom Terrace staff Nicole Gearhart related, “Our residents were motivated to come to regular practice and to sing. They were genuinely excited to participate. Music is inspirational – it makes them feel good and it makes them happy.” Program participants expressed appreciation for the on-going music series, with individuals reporting that they ‘felt better physically,’ ‘enjoyed the group experience’ and ‘learned something new.’
Caroline has a grandmother who lives with memory loss, so she is familiar with the struggles of both people living with the disease and their caregivers. But, she wrote, “working with the singers was still a very new experience, if only because each person reacted so differently…The group certainly taught me patience. I had to learn to slow down a bit. The group reacted best when it was clear that I was having fun.”
On their big day, “Participants were really excited about going down and performing for the recital,” said Nicole. As guests came into the room on recital day, the Beth Sholom Singers were clearly ready to have a good time. They were seated in the front of the room, looking elegant in black and white. “Welcome!” one singer exclaimed. “This is great!,” said another. Caroline focused everyone’s attention on the lyric sheets in hand. They launched into “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and were off, immersed in tempo and melody, and completely involved in the music they were creating together. The room, filled with residents, family, staff and friends, applauded appreciatively after each number. Caroline showed off her vocal prowess via several solo selections, to everyone’s delight.
The next stop for these singers is not Carnegie Hall. We hope it’s more celebration through regular song sessions, with plenty of help from singers and musicians in our community. With community support, many more projects, and their many benefits, are possible.
Tidewater Arts Outreach thanks Beth Sholom Village, the Tidewater Jewish Foundation and Warren and Helen Aleck for their generous support.