Music in isolation: Senior center chorus adapts to pandemic
December 1, 2020
"Mute yourself! Is everybody muted?"
What strange request is this from a chorus director, beginning a singing session? She's looking directly at us, checking us out.
"OK, everybody's muted. Now let's sing."
It's the world of Zoom, in the seasons of 2020. And I am thousands of miles away from the other chorus members as we begin singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." They are in Anchorage, and I am in a small farm town, outside of Portland, Oregon. We are all staring at our individual computer screens.
If there are any benefits to the pandemic, this is one of them. The director of the Anchorage Senior Activity Center Chorus, Margaret Simmons, has taken to Zoom, online weekly chorus singing sessions. As an Alaskan, I had been a member of the chorus for many years, before moving to Oregon three years ago to be near family. Logically, I had thought my chorus days were over, and I missed them – until the pandemic and Zoom.
So there I was on a Tuesday afternoon, on my feet, rising to sing the National Anthem, with about a dozen other choristers, all in our own homes. And, yes, I could hear only myself and our pianist, Marty Osredker. (Margaret and Marty had discovered, in Zoom practice sessions, that there can be a delay in the sound transmission among recipient devices. Being novices in this technology, they concluded muting was the best bet.)
And, you know what? It is still joyful. I can be with people, virtually, that I love being with, singing with. I have learned there is great joy in singing. In these days of social distancing, it seems even more welcome, important, to be joined together in song.
Checking in and connecting
Margaret has been directing the chorus since April of 2008, and Marty has been playing the piano for the chorus since the fall of 2010.
"Our goal is not to be polished musicians," Margaret readily admits. The chorus roster lists 44 names, people of vastly different musical abilities, and differing senior ages. We are in our 60s, 70s and 80s, with one member age 97. "It is a very unique group of people – people have come and gone over the years – and often directing them is very much like herding cats," Margaret says.
So why the dedication to herding us along for so many years? Margaret explains, "We're not trying to sing perfect five-part harmonies. There are no auditions. A lot doesn't matter. What does matter is that we like being together. The best part is that we all care genuinely for each other."
Sending birthday cards and get-well cards are routine chorus practices. Margaret begins each session with what she calls 'checking in': "Has anyone heard from Mary? How is she? How was Tom's surgery?"
Since it is a group of seniors and not everyone is on computers, phone calls are made to check on others.
When Jack turned 97 this summer, the group organized a car parade by his home, to help him celebrate, with parade participants singing "Happy Birthday" out their car windows.
The chorus' repertoire of songs is vast and varied, from patriotic to country to oldies and even some soft rock. The focus will be on Christmas songs this December.
"We learn new songs and relearn some old ones. And to me, it's no surprise. After all these years of singing together, we actually do sound good," Margaret says.
Before the COVID shut-downs, Margaret took the chorus "on the road." We would practice at the Senior Center three times a month and then once a month share our singing sessions at senior facilities, places like Providence Horizon House, Chester Park Cooperative Senior Housing, and the Pioneers Home.
"We'd go out and sing with them, not just to them, clapping to the songs sometimes, sometimes with our kazoos, bringing a little light. Music can do that, you know. People would visibly brighten," Margaret says.
When the pandemic shut-downs first took place, back in the spring, there were weeks when the chorus didn't meet. Margaret was undeterred. With the Anchorage senior center closed for practices, the chorus began meeting outside. For a while, they would meet in St. Patrick's Church parking lot, singing from their cars. Margaret called it "circling the wagons." Some people brought beach chairs to put beside their cars; others just sang out the car windows. Margaret stood in the middle, waving her arms, directing.
Then it got too cool. "Now what? So I learned Zoom," Margaret declares. "It's new possibilities. It's helped people connect in all kinds of new ways. I can keep us singing. You can sing with us from Oregon! And of course there is hope. I will be jumping around, so excited, when we can meet face-to-face again."
But what if things are still shut down in the spring?
"We will go back outside and circle the wagons again, and we can keep on Zooming, too," Margaret proclaims. "Music makes hearts sing. It makes people feel better. It's always done that. We all need that right now."