"Climb every mountain, search high and low.”
On Tuesday morning, the pews in Shenendehowa United Methodist Church are empty, but up front, behind the altar, 12 men and women are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, singing a tune from “The Sound of Music.”
“It’s a beautiful song,” Doug Long, the conductor, tells the chorus. “Now once again, the whole piece.”
Long looks at each of the singers, making sure everyone is ready.
He raises his right hand, counts to four, and the voices fill the air again.
“Climb every mountain, search high and low.”
Josephine Barbella holds the songbook for her 93-year-old mother, Josephine Barranco, and points to each word.
When the song is finished, the petite older woman smiles broadly and kisses her daughter on the cheek.
“Beautiful,” she says. “Beautiful.”
The chorus rehearses for more than an hour, but it’s not just about singing. In between every song, the men and women look at each other. They laugh and smile.
They call themselves The Joytones. Sponsored by Alzheimer’s Association of Northeastern New York, it’s a merry group of people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia who sing with their caregivers.
Together for only 17 months, the chorus has performed eight times in nursing homes, senior centers and at the annual Alzheimer’s Association Caregivers Conference in Albany.
On Oct. 12, they sang at the Walk to End Alzheimer’s at Siena College.
Audiences sing along and clap their hands. They almost always get a standing ovation.
That’s not because they are the most talented chorus in town, it’s because they sing from the heart and lift spirits where ever they go.
The Joytones have three upcoming concerts: Thursday, Nov. 7 at Kingsway Manor in Schenectady; Monday, Nov. 18, Eddy Hawthorne Ridge nursing home in East Greenbush; and Thursday, Nov. 21, at Atria Shaker nursing home in Albany.
There are only three such choruses in the country. In New York City, there’s a group called The Unforgettables, and in Portland, Ore., the chorus Sing Here Now has been together for two and a half years. Like The Joytones, both groups are sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association.
“We’re demonstrating that there is life after diagnosis, that you can have a lot of fun. Music is something that lasts through this disease about as long as anything,” says Long.
“This is a nice thing to do with your loved one. And I’m learning to read music,” says Barbella, of Albany.
Her Italian-American mother, who lives with her, is having trouble remembering English. “But you don’t forget songs, you don’t forget singing,” says Barbella.
Marilyn Niles of Delmar is caregiver for her husband, Bob, a musician who played keyboard for more than 30 years.
She enjoys The Joytones even though she has no singing experience and can’t read music.
“It’s very encouraging. It’s something that we can do together. And we get together afterward to socialize,” Marilyn says.
“People look forward to doing this,” says Karen Wang of Clifton Park, accompanist for the chorus.
Wang, who is retired, decided to volunteer her piano-playing services after she saw a notice about The Joytones in her church bulletin.
“My mother-in-law had Alzheimer’s,” says Wang.
Highlight of the week
“For most of the participants and their care partners, singing in the chorus is the highlight of their week,” says Bill Hinrichs, director of programs and services at the Alzheimer’s Association of Northeastern New York.
Long, a grandfather and retiree who lives in Middle Grove, got the idea after reading about the New York City chorus on the Alzheimer’s Association web site.
He’s been a caregiver for four years, since his wife, Peggy, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and she sings with the chorus.
“The idea was to give people with Alzheimer’s and their support partner an opportunity to get out of the house and go sing whether they knew how to sing or not,” Long says.
“No one is looking for perfection. We’re not going to be judged.”
There are no auditions. Anyone with early or middle-stage Alzheimer’s or dementia can join, but their caregiver must join with them.
Singers who can read music get musical notes in their songbooks, others look at pages with only words on them. Pages come in different colors or are decorated with clip art to help singers find them.
“They get to know each other, and they are all sharing the same experience so there’s an empathy there, there’s an understanding,” says Long. “We’re not there to talk about ‘oh, I have this problem’ or ‘I don’t know how to handle that,’ like a support group might be. We’re there to have fun. We’re there to be positive.”
Long also believes that singing is good for the brain.
“It’s like doing crossword puzzles. Singing is a great activity to maintain acuity, brain sharpness,” he says.
‘I LOVE TO SING’
Long holds a bachelor’s degree in music education from SUNY Fredonia, and master’s and doctoral degrees in higher education administration from the University of Albany. He’s worked as director of activities at SUNY Cobleskill and at Empire State College as director of the Center for Workforce Advancement.
After rehearsal, when The Joytones gather for cookies and punch, 88-year-old Shirley Wagner isn’t talking to anyone, not even her daughter and caregiver, Jane Wagner of Latham.
“Mom has been singing her whole life,” Jane says.
Jane and Shirley are from the Thousand Islands region in northern New York. Now Shirley lives in Kingsway, in the Memory Care Center.
For many years, Shirley was a serious soprano with the Northern Choral Society in Watertown. Jane sang in choruses in high school and college.
While her daughter chats, Shirley remains quiet, her head lowered. Ask her a question, and she doesn’t seem to understand. She says nothing.
Then, suddenly, Shirley raises her head. In a firm and clear voice, she utters only four words.
“I love to sing,” she says.
For more information on The Joytones, phone Bill Hinrichs at the Alzheimer’s Association of Northeastern New York at 867-4999, ext. 203, or send email to [email protected]
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or [email protected]