A month after I launched this blog, I came across an article (in the “New Old Age” blog on the New York Times website) about community chorus groups composed of senior citizens. I found it very inspiring to read about this fabulous way for seniors to stay active, social, and creative—and I was eager to learn more about these groups.

In late November, I visited the D.C. area and chatted with Jeanne Kelly, the founder of one of the groups mentioned in the article, Encore Creativity for Adults. She talked with me about her inspiration for founding the group, the physical and mental benefits of singing, and why it’s imperative that Encore continue its expansion throughout the USA.

If you’ve always wanted to sing in a community chorus, read on to learn about this organization!

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Jeanne Kelly conducts the Encore Chorale at the Smithsonian Institution in May 2013.

Encore Creativity for Older Adults is the largest choral program in the nation, with 13 chorales and over 660 members in the Washington, D.C., area alone. Encore singers have performed in such prestigious U.S. venues as the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian Institution; they’ve also taken their show on the road with performances on the Queen Mary 2 and in France, and have upcoming trips to Vienna, Prague, and Cuba on their calendar.

During a November trip to Washington, D.C., I was fortunate to hear Encore rehearse for its annual holiday concert at Millennium Stage in the Kennedy Center. Have a listen:

(This year’s concert will be on 6 p.m. on December 23. It’s free and open to the public, but if you’re unable to make it to D.C. that day you can watch the broadcast online, both as it happens or at a later time.)

When I first met Encore’s founder and executive director, Jeanne Kelly, I saw a force to be reckoned with—a passionate former opera singer who tackles everything with a gusto and a vivacity that are infectious. By the end of our interview, I was so inspired that I was ready to join Encore myself, even though I live in New York and don’t quite hit the minimum age for membership!

Jeanne Kelly

Encore Executive Director Jeanne Kelly – a force to be reckoned with!

In 2001 Kelly was teaching senior singers chorale groups at the Levine School of Music in Arlington, Virginia, when she was asked to participate in a study on creativity and aging. Sponsored by a group of six federal and private organizations that included the National Endowment for the Arts and National Institute for Mental Health, the study was led by internationally renowned gerontologist Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Heath, and Humanities at George Washington University.

Published in 2006 as “The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults,” the study revealed substantial physical and mental benefits of participation in such programs, including fewer doctor visits, fewer falls, improved eyesight, and less depression. The study and the singers who participated in it were profiled on CBS News with Dan Rather, in US News and World Report, and in over 400 newspapers worldwide.

Kelly sees these benefits firsthand among singers in the Encore program, along with physical benefits such as reduced lung-based illnesses. (Her own pulmonologist says that disciplined singing is “the best thing for your lungs” because it requires the singer to breathe deeply and fill the lungs with air, thus opening them up.) During rehearsals she does a posture check every 15 minutes to ensure that everyone is sitting up straight so their lungs can fill up. During our luncheon interview, I realized I was slouching and bolted straight upright—a position I managed to maintain for about five minutes. Kelly’s straight back, on the other hand, never slumped once the entire time!

In 2007 Kelly left Levine in order to found Encore Creativity for Older Adults. She described to me the impetus for starting this nonprofit group:

I started the organization because I saw a lot of older adults being pushed out of large, prestigious choral groups even after long tenures with these organizations. When pushed on why this happened, Jeanne mentioned that choir directors offered reasons such as “once singers reach a certain age, their voices begin to wobble, and they don’t have the flexibility, agility, and range.” Conductors started implementing auditions that were really veiled processes for weeding out the older adults in the group.

At the rehearsal I attended George Martin, an Encore singer for many years, echoed this sentiment: “They [Encore] want us here. Most groups are kicking us out. They want us.” The wistfulness in his voice choked me up a bit (and made me want to smack down the conductor of his former barbershop quartet!).

“You should be able to sing till the day you die,” Kelly declared. “If you can breathe and have a brain, you can do this. I started Encore for that reason—to give older adults an inclusive environment in which everyone is welcome, regardless of their experience level.”

In that spirit of inclusiveness, Encore does not hold auditions, and performers may sit during rehearsals and performances. To help beginners learn the music, the organization provides rehearsal CDs and partners novices with more accomplished performers. Encore fills a social niche as well: members meet for lunch before or after rehearsals, get together for theater and other social activities, and attend weekend singing camps together.

That said, Encore still maintains high standards, and members are challenged by both the musical selections and the conductors, Jeanne Kelly and Jeffrey Dokken (who is also music director and conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Northern Virginia). “Our members appreciate that we push them,” Kelly points out. “Life gets real serious when you get older, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t continue to be challenged.”

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Come back tomorrow for more of my conversation with Jeanne Kelly about the Encore program and the spread of affiliate chorales in Utah, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania! I also talk with Jeffrey Dokken, the new co-conductor of Encore, about what drew him to the program and why he thinks so highly of it.