Every holiday season, our Metropolitan Singers perform concerts in retirement centers as part of our Seattle Glee Clubs' community service. It's musical light during these darkest days of the year, live music to accompany those elders who often can't get out and about for other concerts. So we bring music to them.
We always ask the elders to join us in holiday songs. And every year, as I recognize some of the same elders -- who are also the strongest singers -- I marvel at how singing and good health are connected.
This year, as we stand before over 60 elders, we warm up in front of a bright and fanciful Christmas tree. This audience is mostly women, with a few fortunate gentlemen who get lots of attention.
Our inspiring director, John, wittily engages the crowd with introductions to our lively spiritual "Great, Getting' Up Morning."
"Gabriel, Gabriel, blow your trumpet!" we sing, rejoicing in our four-part treble harmonies.
Feet start tapping, silver heads nodding and a gentleman in the front row hums right along with us.
Our Russian-trained accompanist, Diana, passionately leans into the ringing chords, "In that morn, fare thee well!" and everybody claps happily.
Then we shift into the lilting melodies of two Russian lullabies, "Little Birch Tree" and "Good Night." Diana has taught us the tongue-twisting Russian patiently -- and phonetically. Diana's piano always lifts us up. Before immigrating to the U.S. with her family, Diana taught in a Russian music conservatory for 20 years.
"Music is its own country," Diana always says. "It makes you forget all your pain."
It does seem to have that healing effect on the elders. They sit up straighter; others lean forward into the music like spindly plants to sunlight.
As we move into "Isn't It Romantic," a song from their generation, the elders smile dreamily and close their eyes, remembering. Romance is eternal. And I see a very old couple reach out very shyly and take each other's hands. How many decades have they loved each other?
"Isn't it romantic, only to be young on such a night as this?" we sing.
And suddenly I remember one of the influential elders in my life, Beata, explaining to me, "The tragedy of getting old is that you're not really old. Inside, you're still young."
Beata was 72 and I was 24. I didn't understand her meaning at the time. But now I do. Memory keeps us always young, even as our bodies fail, even as we sometimes forget ourselves.
Singing, like memory, can also help keep us young. Research has indicated that singing may help to enhance memory. "How Singing Improves Your Health" advises, "Singing, particularly in a chorus, seems to benefit the elderly particularly well."
The article cites a three-year study of how singing affects the health of those 55 and older. Seniors who participated in a chorale showed significant health improvements compared to others their age: fewer doctor visits, fewer eyesight problems and falls, improved lung capacity and less asthma, less incidence of depression -- even the need for medication decreased.
The average age of the elder singers studied was 80, and they noticed that singing improved their posture, breathing, mood, and their energy level. Overall, their quality of life was heightened by the simple act of singing, especially in community.
More brain research has shown surprising results in singing as a way of easing Alzheimer's disease. Singing for the Brain is an organization that helps those with dementia, Alzheimer's, and memory problems through singing. "Music has the ability to access words," says Singing for the Brain voice coach Liz McNaughton. "People who have lost their ability to speak can access songs and words from melody."
If singing can help us as we age, what can it do for us at all ages of life? Brian Eno, British composer and producer of Talking Heads and U2, told National Public Radio that "Singing is the key to a long life, a good figure, a stable temperament, increased intelligence, new friends, super self-confidence, heightened sexual attractiveness and a better sense of humor."
Amen, brother. And sister! Who wouldn't want to join in communal singing with that recommendation?
As we all, elders and chorale join together at the end of our Seattle concert to sing holiday songs, I feel a surge of physical well-being and gratitude to all the voices raised so strongly.
"Joy to the world," the elders sing with us.
And yes, that's what I feel now. Joy to be joining my voice with others, to still be in this world together, surviving and singing.
Brenda Peterson is the author of 16 books, including the recent memoir I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, which was named a "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Book of 2010" by The Christian Science Monitor. Many of the chapter titles in this book were song titles. For more: www.IWantToBeLeftBehind.com