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Singing a Breath of Fresh Air – Interview

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We had significant enough response from a recent post (“Singing is a Breath of Fresh Air for
Caregivers”) that we thought it important to provide readers with more information. CCM caught up with Jonathan Miller, who conducts 
Encore Illinois, a choral organization specifically for older adults. Additionally, Maestro Miller will be launching the Good Memories Encore Chorale, intended for people with dementia and their care partners, in the fall of 2018.

CCM: Tell us a little about Encore Illinois. How do people find you? And what should anyone who’s interested expect?

JM: My wife (Sandy) and I founded Encore Illinois in early 2016. Encore Illinois is an independent not-for-profit organization based in the Chicago area. We provide choral-music education and performance opportunities for older adults under the direction of professional artists. We sing challenging, eclectic 4- and 3-part repertoire with piano in a supportive, encouraging environment. Encore is tuition-based. Encore choirs are non-auditioned, and we make it really fun.

We are the local affiliate of Encore Creativity, which is based in the Washington, DC area. Encore is the nation’s largest choral-music organization for older adults (55+). Encore in DC alone has 21 choirs and 1200 singers and is now operating choirs in New York City. Encore in DC has been around since 2001 and is a fantastic organization with which to be affiliated. Encore Illinois in Chicago offers 7 choirs in the city and suburbs, and we’re happy to announce that we now have more than 300 singers currently singing in our Spring 2018 session.

People can find out more about us on our website, www.encoreillinois.org. Our choirs are in Hyde Park, the Gold Coast, Evanston, Oak Park/River Forest, Arlington Heights, Glen Ellyn, and Hinsdale. Rehearsals are once a week, during the day, for 90 minutes and start with stretching and vocal warmups.

CCM: You’re impressive! You founded Chicago a cappella–an ensemble with a fantastic reputation nation-wide and a premier Chicago ensemble–and remain its Artistic Director. No doubt, skill levels vary greatly among your membership for Encore Illinois. How would you encourage folks who really want to sing but are afraid they aren’t good enough? Likewise, how do you challenge those with more choral experience?

JM: You are very kind. We’re finding that word of mouth is bringing more and more people to us, and people are encouraging their friends to give Encore a try. Yes, the skills levels among our singers very widely, and that’s part of what makes it fun. We have many people who are brand-new to choral singing, many others who are back after a break (with the break lasting from 2 to 65 years! – my 82-year-old mother hadn’t sung with us since high school), and of course lifelong choral singers. The repertoire is a big challenge – targeting just the right sweet spot so that, as you way, experienced people are still stretched while newcomers are able to hold their own.

We also create a setting where the stronger singers help out others who might need someone singing in one or both ears. Some people prefer a higher-end experience and go back to other choirs, but most people seem to keep coming back over and over. We’re in our seventh session now, and many of our singers have been with us since the very beginning.

CCM: What’s your range of repertoire? But also, what kind of music does Encore Illinois like to sing most? How often do you put up a show, and how long do you rehearse it before it’s ready?

JM: We have three sessions a year—a fall/holidays session with concerts in December, a spring program with concerts in May, and a rock ‘n’ roll choir in the summer (with only 2 locations) that performs in late July or early August. The current spring program is all American folk songs and spirituals. The range of repertoire is pretty wide; I’m Jewish and like to make sure we do some Hebrew at Chanukah, and we do sing in other languages from time to time. Probably the most difficult thing we’ve done so far is a piece I wrote for Christmas called “Clip, Clop,” which has tricky rhythms that illustrated the donkey’s bumpy ride down the road to Bethlehem.

CCM: From your vantage point on the podium, what is it about choral singing that makes it particularly supportive for caregivers? 

JM: We’re launching our choir for people with dementia and their care partners to sing together (Good Memories Encore Choralesee more info here) in fall 2018 on the Gold Coast and will ramp up to other locations as resources permit. That choir is for people with Alzheimer’s and related dementias to sing along with their care partners – and the idea is that we target people who are still living in the community, outside of care facilities, because that is where the most social isolation tends to happen and where the need for meaningful, regular social contact is the greatest.

The Good Memories choral experience is based on the model of the Giving Voice Initiative (GVI), based in Minnesota (www.givingvoicechorus.org). Encore Illinois is a member of GVI. In the GVI/Good Memories model, the care partner sings in the choir along with the person who has dementia. The care partner gets to do something fun, exhilarating, all-consuming, and joyful – something that is sometimes in short supply when you’re caring for someone else. Our model also provides volunteer singers who receive special training about ways to communicate well with people who have Alzheimer’s or related dementias. The volunteer singer is available in case the care partner needs a break and doesn’t want to sit with the person who has dementia. Volunteer singers help make sure that the person with dementia is:

  • comfortable in the rehearsal environment,
  • tracking with what the music director is asking the choir to rehearse
  • safe and tended to during bathroom breaks, etc.
  • getting as much as possible out of the choral and social experience

Some care partners who sing with their spouses say “it’s like going on a date.” Other family members say, “Our week pretty much revolves around choir rehearsal.”

CCM: Since caregiving seems so all-consuming, I imagine a lot of caregivers who would like to join a choir are worried are worried about emergencies, or not being able to commit. Does your organization have any methods for coping with that?

JM: We don’t hear a lot about that, though surely it happens. Even in our regular Encore Chorales, we have emergency contact information on file for every singer. What seems to happen is that the choir becomes central to people’s experience of well-being and that they attend whenever they can!

CCM: What kind of change do you witness in people who become associated with Encore Illinois? 

JM: Joy is pouring out of people at rehearsal. Singers are making new friends and making existing frienships stronger. People are astounded at what they are able to accomplish musically. The jubilation at the end of a concert is palpable—you yourself know this as a performer.

There are unexpected blessings. One woman, who records for the blind, told me with shining eyes recently that she now can get through very long phrases of reading out loud without having to do re-takes nearly as often as she used to. She said, “I know it’s because of all the breathing exercises we do in here.” Another is that kids and grandkids (and great-grandkids) of our singers come to concerts to cheer them on – that is one of the sweetest things you’ll ever get to witness.

CCM: Thank you so much first for offering your significant gifts to the caregiving community and also for chatting with me. This is your chance to plug any projects you’re working on right now as well as to let us know how to keep up with or contact you for more information.

JM: You’re welcome! I’m also composing and arranging a bit and always interested in commissions for new works or arrangements, so if there are other conductors out there looking for good new music, please be in touch. The Good Memories choir is taking a lot of my and Sandy’s attention and will be exciting to have up and running. I’m also doing pop choral arrangements for www.musicnotes.com (I’ve transcribed about 20 Pentatonix charts) and staying active with Jewish music. Also, anyone is welcome to attend any of Encore’s free concerts that we offer to the community in May, July/August, and December; visit www.encoreillinois.org to see our current concert schedule. Interested singers can always visit a rehearsal or two to see if it’s a good fit before they register.

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