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New choral work combats elder loneliness with community

Courtesy of VocalEssence
G. Phillip Shoultz, III, VocalEssence's associate conductor, will direct the multigenerational choir.

For too many people, aging is a journey taken alone. 

With the loss of friends and loved ones, decreased mobility and distance from family and social activities, many seniors feel isolated from the rest of the world.

Recent research conducted in the United Kingdom underscored that crisis, and some senior support groups there commissioned artwork in response. “The Voyage,” a new choral work composed by British composer Bob Chilcott, aims to address the issue of loneliness head on, by bringing singers of all ages together to perform a piece that boldly talks about the feelings stirred by the aging process and the life journey we all travel. In the process of performing the piece, singers of different generations interact with one another, sparking musical conversation about the many stages of life.

When Phillip Brunelle, founder and artistic director of the Twin Cities choral group VocalEssence, heard about “The Voyage,” he wanted his choir to be the first to perform the work in this part of the world.

“I met Bob Chilcott two years ago,” Brunelle explained. “He told me he was writing this piece and I said, ‘Oh, then, VocalEssence should do the United States premiere.’ He said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”

Brunelle was inspired by the way “The Voyage” physically brings singers of all ages together, creating a community of artists united in the experience of making music. The work itself is a perfect metaphor for loneliness, and a physical example of the unifying power of song, he said: “The theme of the piece is loneliness, but together the singers create their own community.”

United in song

For the last several weeks, VocalEssence has been working with younger singers from the Minneapolis Youth Chorus and senior performers from Voices of Experience to rehearse “The Voyage.” This large combined choir, made up of singers between the ages of 9 and 90, will perform Chilcott’s work, along with “Quilt Songs,” a modern choral piece combining quilting, poetry and the music of five prominent women composers at VocalEssence’s 48th season premiere Oct. 16 at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. Guthrie Theater Director Joseph Haj will also perform a reading of Shakespearean monologues.

G. Phillip Shoultz, III, VocalEssence’s associate conductor, will direct the multigenerational choir.

G. Phillip Shoultz, III
Courtesy of VocalEssence
G. Phillip Shoultz, III

“I love the idea of these generations coming together to share what each knows with each other,” Shoultz said. “We are finding the older adults energized by the kids. The kids are going to be inspired to continue in music by the older adults. Everyone will learn from each other. The unifying force of music rings clear in their performance.”

First soprano Barb Anderson, a 13-year VocalEssence veteran, said that singing with different ages has been an uplifting experience. At large-group rehearsals, Shoultz broke the singers up into smaller “pods,” mixing young singers with an older adult and a VocalEssence singer. This combination was designed to help the voices blend, and also to build emotional connections between the singers. For many participants, it worked.

“Phillip had us make connections with the kids and the older adults,” Anderson said. “At rehearsal, we actually spoke to each other and spent time getting to know one another. The community we built has been just wonderful.”

Building community through artistic expression is important, added Judy Drobeck, a VocalEssence second soprano.

“Working together on this piece makes us feel like we are reaching out and embracing the community,” she said. By working closely with singers of all ages, Drobeck said she realizes the unique gifts that come with all stages of life. The music itself creates images that speak to each generation.  

“It’s very evocative,” Drobeck said. “There are certain places in the work that actually bring tears to my eyes. The effect is the same for several of the other singers. The content of the work is very moving.” 

Senior singers

VocalEssence has a history of working with older singers, Shoultz said. In 2015, the organization founded Vintage Voices, a choral program that sends a conductor and accompanist to senior centers and assisted living communities across the Twin Cities to offer a 12-week choral program that culminates in a performance for family and friends.   

“We have created choir experiences that are very different than the normal choir experiences,” Shoultz said.  

Response to Vintage Voices has been enthusiastic. Participants report a positive impact from the experience of singing together and performing for friends and family.

“We evaluate the singers in our Vintage Voices program,” Shoultz said, “and hands down the things that we hear from them is, ‘My memory has improved.’ Or ‘My mood and attitude improves as we approach rehearsal days.’ The act of coming together and creating community sparks endorphins that spark these moods, especially when seniors are singing songs that feel nostalgic to them.”

A rehearsal of “The Voyage”

Working in a larger choir to perfect and perform “The Voyage” has been exciting for the senior participants, Shoultz said. The different age groups have been rehearsing separately and together, he explained, and when he met with the oldest group of singers last month, the excitement was palpable. 

“We spent time talking about the text, teaching them the music,” Shoultz said. “We discussed the poetry and the meaning. There were about 40 adults there. They were engaged in the discussion for about an hour. They really related to the music.”

That age-specific rehearsal had a positive impact on the older singers, Shoultz added: “We created a community in an hour, and for the next six weeks we will continue to be a community. It is one of the ways we can combat loneliness.”

Open for discussion

When he combined members of the Minneapolis Youth Chorus with VocalEssence at a rehearsal in late September, Shoultz discovered a unique opportunity for discussion and exploration among the performers.

“We started with friendly conversation and then got into some deeper issues,” he said. “I asked, ‘Have you ever known anyone who’s dealt with mental illness?’ ‘Have you ever felt isolated or alone?’ I asked people to step forward.” Later, one of the singers wrote Shoultz an email to describe what the experience felt like for him.

“When we were split into groups and you asked the question, ‘Have you ever felt so lonely that you isolated yourself from others?’ ” he wrote Shoultz in an email, “I remember feeling nervous to step forward. … I was surprised to see most in the room step forward, including the younger kids. For me, that was one of the most unifying moments I’ve had with VocalEssence — to know that everyone struggles with this and seeing young and old step forward, was incredibly powerful to me. I kept looking at the kids in my group and wondered how they felt, whether they felt the same warm sense of connection that I felt, whether they felt less isolated in their own lives — I hope so.”

This is just the type of unifying experience Shoultz and Brunelle hope that “The Voyage” will provide for performers — and listeners.

“Music is a vehicle that can bring people together, to unite them in experience,” Shoultz said. “And the experience of working and singing with others can also help combat feelings of loneliness and isolation. This is exactly what we have been hoping to achieve all along.”

VocalEssence will perform “The Voyage” at Central Lutheran Church, 333 South 12th Street, Minneapolis, on Oct. 16 from 4 to 6 p.m. A preperformance discussion hosted by Randall Davidson will take place at 3 p.m. Tickets are available online.

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