Spirited Singers performances resonate among seniors in retirement centers

Saturday, August 2, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:31 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 4, 2014
Broadway Christian Church's Spirited Singers gathered July 21 in the lounge of Lenoir Woods, a senior living center, to sing to residents. The choir is one of multiple music groups that visit senior centers.

COLUMBIA — "Down by the riverside, gonna study war no more. I ain't gonna study war no more ..."

The energetic voices of 15 Spirited Singers — 12 women and three men — filled the common area of the Lenoir Woods health care center as they sang the gospel "Down by the Riverside" with pianist Leslie Clay.

Some residents smiled and listened in chairs, wheelchairs and sofas and mouthed the words.

"Thank you very much for listening and allowing us to come here to sing," Marilyn McCreary, the group's facilitator, said after the singers finished. "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You."

The recent Monday performance at the center marked the eighth performance this year for the Spirited Singers, a choir from Broadway Christian Church that was formed to cater to nursing homes and retirement centers.

"I like to sing, and in this town, old singers have less opportunity to sing," McCreary said. "I formed this choir to provide more opportunities for all of us to sing."

At the center, the choir sang its summer program, including "In the Good Old Summertime," "Carolina in the Morning"and "Ain't She Sweet," to which member Ruth Akerson tap-danced on the pink carpet there. They also sang hymns such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "This is the Day"and "Amazing Grace." In all, they sang 17 songs for a 30-minute show.

The Spirited Singers started when McCreary saw the Jubilaires, a choir at Pine Ridge Presbyterian Church in north Kansas City that performs at nursing homes. She saw the group perform there last year and was inspired to bring a similar ministry to Columbia.

McCreary proposed the idea to a 60-and-older club at Broadway Christian. With the club's permission, she advertised the first choir meeting to members. Four people showed up. Now the ensemble has 17 to 18 regulars.

The choir's first performance occurred at the center. As the choir sang, McCreary noticed the residents' faces light up, and more people started streaming in to listen.

"At that moment, I knew that this must be working," she said. "We were doing something right."

The choir practices once a month and performs every first and third Monday of each month. Most of the songs the members sang at Lenoir Woods that day were part of their summer program, and the choir had rehearsed them for months.

McCreary said the choir sings mostly traditional songs that have been passed along from parent to child. Many of the members know these songs from their youth, or they are songs members' parents grew up hearing.

McCreary said the choir is trying to perform at every nursing home and retirement center in Columbia. When they are finished, they will revisit those places to sing a different, seasonal set songs.

The city Parks and Recreation Department offers similar volunteer music opportunities to perform at retirement communities, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, schools and more. They include the The Good Timers choir, a house band, a bell choir and a ukulele ensemble.

The choir welcomes everybody, McCreary said, even those who are not Broadway Christian members or do not know how to read music.

"If you can sing in church, you can sing in this group," she said.

Some members joined because they love singing.

"I have been singing for my whole life," Donna Walter said, adding that her mom sang to her while she was in the womb.

Sandy Hoover said she enjoys singing as well, and though she said she is not good or a professional, it is something for her to do and a way to meet people.

McCreary does not worry if the group's singing lacks precision.

"We're not like the Mormon Tabernacle (Choir), which consists of mostly professional singers," McCreary said. "That's not what we are. We're in our 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, and we just have fun and use what we can do. If we can't see the music or can't sing the high notes, we don't worry what we can't do. We worry what we can do and do the best we can."

Recruiting is usually by word of mouth. McCreary asks other church-goers if they are interested during potlucks. Hoover, who joined a month and a half ago, heard of the choir from member Larry Bernard.

Bernard said people, regardless of their capacity, tend to connect and reconnect with music.

"My dad had severe Alzheimer's, and the way to connect with him was through music and song," Bernard said. "That is one part of my motivation to join and participate in Spirited Singers. Music is a universal language and a fun way to share with folks. I enjoy being with fellow folks from church and appreciate the opportunity to share and make someone's day brighter."

Bernard also said many senior residents sing along with them.

"When one reaches that spot in life, it can be monotonous," Bernard said. "Anything makes a difference. To be a difference in someone's life is my mantra."

Bernard recalled a memorable experience during a performance at Candlelight Lodge. A women in the audience became animated as they sang. She knew every word and sang along.

"It brightened her day," Bernard said. "She could get up and walk, and the one thing I regretted was to (not) get her up and dance with her."

Gay Gage said performing at senior centers or hospitals used to be out of her comfort zone.

"But now that I come here, I see that they enjoy it so much, and they join us and sing with us," Gage said. "Even though they don't know the words, they participate in some way. It's more of a blessing for us than them."

Hoover said joining the choir has been a rewarding experience, one that has allowed her to participate in something someone will like.

"We are going to places where older folks live and have them sing along," Hoover said. "We're trying to get them to feel that they can participate and make them feel good."

Kim Leon, who directs activities at Lenoir Woods, said the senior living center holds live music performances several times a month. Performances include rock, old hymns and religious music varieties. A musical therapist also comes to provide therapeutic music experiences for the residents, Leon said.

Kristin Veteto, a music therapist at the Columbia music therapy center Giving Song, said senior citizens who listen to music for a brief time benefit from social engagement and neuronal stimulation as well as some possibility of memory recall.

At the recent Monday's performance, Lenoir Woods resident Doris Hemmann said most of the songs were from her childhood and reminded her of her uncle, a Lutheran minister who treated her well.

McCreary said the best part of the choir is not only seeing the enjoyment of the audience, but also the choir members.

"I go home feeling happy after singing with this group," Akerson, the tap dancer, said. "I feel good and spirited."

Camaraderie and companionship infuse the Spirited Singers. During a rehearsal, members greeted each other warmly, joked and chatted. They have fun together — sometimes so much that a little discipline is needed to pull everyone's attention back to rehearsing, Bernard said.

"We laugh a lot," McCreary said. "It's more of a community. I knew the members before Spirited Singers formed, but now I know them so much better."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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