Choir brings caregivers, volunteers and those with memory loss together
By Grace Brandt
On a Thursday morning at 10 a.m., the Singing Hills Chorus meets for choir practice. Musical director Kristen Ziemke leads the warmup, which starts after a liberal social time that allows choir members to connect and catch up after a week apart.
For these 40-some singers, the social aspect is just as important as the musical one, because the Singing Hills Chorus was founded with a special mission—to be a place where people living with Alzheimer’s or other dementias can fellowship in a singing-based community. About one-third of the group’s members have some sort of memory condition, while the rest of the singers are either caregivers or volunteers.
“Alzheimer’s disease often changes relationships that people have, so to be in a place that’s so accepting and full of love, it’s really important,” said Sandi Lubrant, who helped found the group and is also program director at ACT on Alzheimer’s in Mankato. “Instead of losing friends, people are making friends. We’re getting to know each other’s stories.”
A place to belong
The Singing Hills Chorus was formed in 2017, with Janesville native Ziemke as musical director. Ziemke said only a handful of people showed up for the first informational meeting, with more volunteers than participants originally. But after officially starting in September 2017, the numbers grew. By the first concert, held that December, Ziemke said about 26 people performed (including those affected by dementia, their caregivers, and volunteers), and the numbers have grown for every session since then. The group now has about 40 regular participants.
“We knew it just needed time to blossom,” Ziemke said. “People struggle with feeling confident enough to come experience it, but once they’re in, they’re in.”
Cheryl Lamoureux and Kristi Krengel are a mother-daughter team who have been singing with the choir since its first season. Krengel acts as caregiver to her mother, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. They said they have both found a welcoming community that accepts them for who they are and what they bring.
“There’s a sense of community and freedom in knowing if you make a mistake, it’s okay,” Krengel said. “You don’t have to worry about messing up. It feels safe here.”
“You’re accepted for what you can bring,” Lamoureux agreed. “There’s a feeling here of acceptance, love and affirmation with this group. I just love it. I look forward to this day every week.”
Ziemke explained that the choir tries to keep a 1-1-1 ratio: one caregiver and volunteer for every singing living with dementia. This is to preserve the group’s sense of community. In fact, Ziemke said the most important part of the choir is simply offering people a place to form new relationships in a safe space—whether the singers have memory conditions, are caregivers or are simply volunteers.
“We’ve seen friendships develop,” she said. “We’ve seen people say, ‘I needed to be here this week. I needed to come back because I needed the joy that it brings. I look forward to Thursday. It’s the best day of my week.’”
Singing all year round
The Singing Hills Chorus divides its time between two 14-week sessions in the spring and winter, each culminating in a concert, as well as a more informal “get together” session in the summer.
The choir’s leadership team makes an effort to offer participants a range of music that is both enjoyable and challenging. Part of this is including pieces that have two- or three-part harmony, as well as some songs most of the choir members are unfamiliar with. There are usually around 14 songs per concert.
“We try to choose music that promotes joy,” Ziemke said. “If there’s one thing that I can say about the choir, it is a joy-giving experience. From the rehearsal to the music we choose, to the social time before and after, it’s about creating a joyful experience that promotes friendships, that stimulates cognitive health and helps [our singers] accomplish something that maybe they thought they couldn’t accomplish.”
Ziemke said the choir has all levels of singers, from people who have never sung in a group to people who have years of experience. They also have all levels of dementia progression. Because of this, Ziemke and her leadership team adapt the music to everyone’s individual needs, whether that’s creating a CD or writing out lyric sheets.
“As the disease progresses, we’re able to progress with them and give them the modifications they need,” she said.
According to Ziemke, the group’s rehearsals are just like rehearsals at any other choir; she works with members on diction, volume, breath support and other musical elements. However, she also modifies the way she directs to make it more appropriate for her members, such as doing things at a slower pace or providing moments to pause and really grasp the information.
“We’re working on the same goals as your average choir, but we may pace it a little differently,” she explained.
The Singing Hills Chorus faced a unique challenge in late March, when much of the country shut down in an attempt to slow the ever-spreading coronavirus. The group could no longer safely meet at its usual location—Our Lady of Good Counsel in Mankato—but Ziemke knew how important the weekly practices were for group members’ sense of community and connection.
“We wanted to try to keep some continuity to the program, because for people living with a diagnosis, continuity is so important,” she said.
To continue meeting their singers’ needs, the group switched to virtual practices via Facebook Live, still meeting at the same time every Thursday morning. Ziemke continues to lead practices, this time from her home, and while the weekly sessions are “condensed,” they still include the group’s traditional greeting, vocal warmups, interactive exercises—and lots of singing.
“It’s been kind of a switching of gears,” Ziemke said. “We’ve really adapted. We’re still trying to promote that interaction that can happen through a live feed.”
Ziemke added that anyone can tune into these live feeds and even participate if they want. In fact, some of the group’s Facebook posts have reached upwards of 2,400 views. Ziemke called this a “silver lining” that both brings more publicity to the group and hopefully reaches out to more people who could be interested in joining.
“I think one of our biggest hopes is that, through the fact that we’re more exposed online, we’d reach more people to learn about our program,” she said. “We’re really hoping that the outreach of who we are will help people experience [the group] virtually a little bit.”
While a concert was planned for early May, Ziemke said it has been postponed because of the ongoing health situation, with no firm reschedule date. However, the group has continued to work on their songs, as well as invite the community at large to learn with them. The hope is to eventually reschedule the concert, but Ziemke said that the Singing Hills Chorus will find a different way to share their music if necessary.
“If we can’t do a public performance, maybe we come together and share music in a different way by inviting community people to come in and sing with us the songs they’ve been practicing with us on Facebook Live,” she said.
The May concert’s theme would have been “Together in Song,” with every song referencing something about music. But even with the current situation, Ziemke said that the theme still fits.
“All our songs mentioned music and what music brings about in us,” she said. “So we just kind of spun it a little bit. ‘Together in song’ can also mean with our community.”
For more information on the choir, visit singinghillschorus.org.