In yesterday’s post, I discussed Jeanne Kelly’s motivation for starting Encore Creativity for Older Adults. Here’s a snippet from one of Encore’s recent rehearsals—a sneak peek of what to expect at Encore’s annual free holiday concert at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage this year, at 6 p.m. on December 23, 2013.

Today I continue my conversation with her and also have a chat with Jeffrey Dokken, the new co-conductor of the group. Read on to learn more about this amazing community chorus program for seniors—and learn how you can start an Encore program in your own neighborhood!

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Jeanne Kelly

Encore Executive Director Jeanne Kelly

In response to my question “Where does Encore go from here?” Kelly had a ready answer: “Grow, grow, grow!” In addition to its 13 chorales and 660+ members in the Washington, D.C., area, Encore also has affiliate chorales in four states. The first affiliate sprang up in Hudson, OH, and has been followed by others in Salt Lake City, UT; Sarasota, FL; and Reading, PA.

Because the Encore program aims to make singing as accessible as possible, it provides plenty of support to its affiliates. The conductor of the Hudson group, for example, pays only $200 per year for access to all Encore templates and to its music lending library (which has numerous copies of each piece of music). For the holidays, Kelly shipped 60 copies of several musical selections to the Hudson group, which had to pay only for the postage (and not for the music itself).

Kelly’s goal is for Encore to become the “national umbrella” for senior chorale groups across the USA. Ultimately, she would like to see Encore chorales in every state. The Encore model is “easy to replicate,” she pointed out, and the program should be considered “preventative medicine” for all seniors. (Anyone interested in starting an Encore group in his or her area is invited to get in touch with Kelly through the organization’s website.)

Her passion for Encore goes well beyond just promoting the health and social benefits of singing. She sees Encore as a counter to the marginalization of older people. “With my white hair, it’s almost condescending,” she complained. “ ‘Can I help you lift that soda?’ Definitely stereotyped! It’s like we don’t have anything to say.”

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Encore Chorale group performing at the Kennedy Center December 2012.

At no point does Encore support the notion that its members can’t sing. Far from it, in fact: “Give Encore 15 weeks (even if you’re a novice), and you’ll not only be singing well but you’ll be ready to perform in front of a live audience in a stunning venue,” declared Kelly. Encore’s mission is to show each and every person it encounters that “singing is the one thing you can do for the rest of your life.”

When pressed about the challenges facing Encore today, Kelly stated, “Encore is at a crossroads right now. We were a Mom-and-Pop organization when we started, but we need to get to the next level.” In order to maintain the high standards of artistic excellence that the program is known for, the organization needs to hire a full-time professional conductor.

And that’s where Jeffrey Dokken comes in. He’s currently the music director and conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Northern Virginia, and Kelly was thrilled when he joined the Encore program as a part-time conductor earlier this year (a position that Kelly hopes will move to full-time status in 2014). His stellar resume includes performances at Carnegie Hall, the White House, and the Kennedy Center, and he is excited about helping Encore in its mission.

Dokken Christmas at the White House

Jeffrey Dokken conducting the Symphony Orchestra of Northern Virginia at the White House.

At the end of the November rehearsal I attended, Dokken and I had a brief conversation about what drew him to Encore. When I asked him, “Why are you doing this? Your plate is already full! What made you join Encore?” he replied, “I firmly believe in the healing power of music, and that directly coincides with the mission of the organization. Music adds so much to people’s lives—it gives them a sense of community and accomplishment.”

Beyond the mission, though, Dokken was also drawn to the organization because of a personal experience:

My mother-in-law had cancer three years ago at the age of 63.  She’s in remission now, but following treatment she was unable to do much physically and would go home after work and just sit in the apartment. One day, she mentioned to me that she wished she could join a choir, but because she couldn’t sight read she couldn’t audition for one. Almost immediately after this conversation I met Jeanne and a light bulb went off in my head as I realized that I knew someone whose life would be directly enhanced by an organization like this. So I jumped at the chance to join the organization when Jeanne approached me about conducting.

Dokken also shares Kelly’s desire to broaden the program’s reach and spread its positive impact on the self-worth of older people. Although he infuses rehearsals and performances with plenty of humor and fun, he does challenge the participants. “This is not a charity case,” he emphasized:

I run Encore like every professional choir I’ve ever been involved with. I conduct it like I conduct all over the world. At first, people said, “Slow down!” and I replied, “Nope! It’s important for your brain to keep up here. I can slow down my speaking, but we’re not slowing down the session. You’re not dumb. Push yourself!”

Because some people in the group have sung professionally and others have never sung a note in their lives, I asked Dokken how he can conduct these two disparate groups together. He replied:

It’s a very delicate balance. It has to be challenging enough for people who know what they’re doing and easy enough for the people who don’t. I move fast, which the professional folks like. Those who are new to singing feel the urge to step up their game (which helps their minds stay active and engaged) and appreciate the opportunity to be challenged—something that can be lacking after someone retires.

My final question to Dokken was “What advice would you give to seniors who are interested in joining a group like Encore?” He response was full of encouragement:

Just go ahead and do it! We’ve only had one person who tried it out and didn’t stay. Singing is incredibly fun and very rewarding. Come and try it out. . . . If you put yourself out there, leaving your comfort zone can be rewarding. As Nike’s slogan states, just do it. I believe in that 100%.

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Feeling inspired by these conversations? (I know I am!) Tune in tomorrow for even more information about other organizations that help seniors stay active!