Building Community While Doing Research: the Community of Voices Senior Choir Project

A research project about the impact of choir participation on seniors' health builds momentum for lifelong singing.

On an early spring day in San Francisco, a choir of seniors, wearing bright yellow stoles and smiles to match, takes the stage at the Community Music Center. Soon the singers are swaying to familiar Spanish-language folk songs and singing with growing assurance—urged on by their energetic conductor Martha Rodriguez-Salazar and accompanist Jennifer Peringer.

The free concert marks the end of the group’s year of participation in Community of Voices/Comunidad de Voces, a NIH-funded study investigating whether seniors who participate in community choirs experience measurable health benefits. Launched in May 2013, the study is recruiting singers for a total of 12 choirs that will operate out of senior centers across the city.

Participants in the study sing in a choir for one year and complete several health assessments to measure their balance, memory, coordination, and mental well-being. The researchers will also interview the singers about the benefits—and any challenges—of singing in a choir.

Choir Singing: An Easy Sell

Julene Johnson, a cognitive neuroscientist who leads the study at the University of California, San Francisco, says she is surprised at how easy it has been to enroll singers. “They have been so dedicated, and generous with their time,” she says. “And they are very expressive about how singing in a choir has impacted their lives.” 

Of the 185 seniors enrolled in the study thus far, approximately half have never sung in a choir as an adult. Other statistics for the current singers: 36 percent are non-Latino White, 28 percent are African American, 25 percent are Latino, and 12 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander. The singers range in age from 60 to 88 with a mean age of 72 years. Twenty percent have less than a high school education, and 27 percent rated their health as fair or poor.

“This is not your grandma’s sing-along,” says Johnson, quoting Jeanne Kelly who heads up the Encore senior choir and arts program in the DC metro area. “This is meant to be challenging, to work your body and your mind, and to help develop your social relationships. Using choir to have an impact on health has to have a higher bar than just showing up and singing old-time tunes.”

Choir director Rodriquez-Salazar says the seniors have accepted the challenge and the changes in their well-being often are plain to see. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, she spoke of one singer who was so out of breath after the senior choir’s first concert that she asked him to sit down. “He did, but then got up again and by the end of the concert he was standing up, and beaming,” she says. “I saw his health improve in 30 minutes.”

Keeping the Singing Going: A Happy Challenge

The senior singers’ enthusiasm for singing is posing another challenge—but a happy one: how to keep the music going and expanding for older adults well after the study is complete. The Community of Voices singers that have just completed the study were immediately absorbed into The Solera Singers, an ongoing senior choir at the San Francisco Community Music Center. And Johnson and the Music Center’s program director Sylvia Sherman are working on a sustainability plan for all of the senior choirs.

Toward that end, the Community Music Center announced on May 22, 2014 that it had been named one of 10 finalists in Google’s Bay Area Impact Challenge. As a finalist, the Community Music Center has already been awarded $250,000 to help sustain the 12 choirs after the study ends. With enough public support during the Challenge voting period, the Music Center hopes to be among the top four organizations with the most votes, entitling it to receive an additional $500,000, which would be used to continue the senior choirs for a longer time.

An Unexpected Partnership

Interest has also stirred in the greater choral community in San Francisco. In October 2013, after reading the San Francisco Chronicle article about the senior choir project, a board member of the San Francisco Bach Choir urged her organization to offer free tickets to the new senior choirs. Within days, Choir members had donated $1,000 towards tickets for their concerts taking place that very weekend. Even with such short notice, several senior choristers attended.

Choir members visited more of the senior choirs prior to their December 2013 concert; some 34 of the senior singers and their guests attended the performance. Before its March 2014 performances, the San Francisco Bach Choir distributed tickets to seven senior choirs; some 100 community choir visitors were in the audience for that concert.

“We feel this project can be part of a vibrant musical cross-fertilization among the communities of our city,” the Choir’s Tricia Bell reported. “Bach Choir singers have been inspired by the joyful energy we have witnessed in these senior choirs' rehearsals and performances, each reflecting the ethnic make-up of their local neighborhoods. And we have been moved by the enthusiastic response we've received from those senior singers who attended our own performances.”

The Importance of Research

Another key to sustaining senior choirs, in San Francisco and elsewhere, will be increasing the evidence base about the impact of choral singing on seniors’ health and well-being. That’s a gap Johnson hopes her study will fill.

“The community is telling me that they can’t sustain choir and music programs very easily without evidence,” Johnson says. “So one of our goals is to provide that strong evidence that choirs and other music programs are not only good for you, but that they are a cost-effective way to deliver health promotion programs in the community.”

Sherman of the Community Music Center goes even further. “My dream is that this kind of evidence-based research will help people be able to join a community choir and have their health insurance pay for it,” she says. “It just makes sense.”

Resources

Video

Music Does the Body Good

Articles

UCSF Studying Health of S.F. Seniors in Choirs, San Francisco Chronicle, October 28, 2013.

Singing in Choir Can Give Seniors Sense of Community, Richmond Review, May 2014.

Making a Joyful Noise — and Maybe a Healthier Life, The New Fillmore, April 1, 2014.

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