The exercises were intended to open up the chest and diaphragm. Arms overhead, deep breaths in and out. Jaw loose, face loose. Next came voice exercises, the sopranos and altos, tenors and baritones going up and down the scales.
On a rare balmy day in mid-January, the studio-room at Myerberg Senior Center, 3101 Fallstaff Road, filled with voices trying out the spring repertoire, a mix of Broadway show tunes, American songbook, gospel and opera. At the front of the room, Jeanne Kelly, an energetic 64-year-old with a cap of pixie-cut white hair and glasses perched on her nose, played an upright piano and shouted out instructions.
"We want some folk accent but not too much. We don't want to sound hokey," she says, enunciating the words in "Porgy and Bess" by Gershwin and noting where the phrases break to take a breath.
"Italian is a language of vowels. R's at the beginning of a word are rolled. I don't want any American r's in this room," she says, demonstrating how the letter r in "Va Pensero," an aria by Verdi, should sound.
The spring semester of the Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Center/Myerberg Senior Center Encore Choral kicked off with announcements, exercises and sheet music distributed to the two dozen singers in attendance, a first rehearsal.
Kelly founded Encore Chorale, a singing group for seniors ages 55 and up, in 2006-2007. The chorale operates under the aegis of Encore Creativity for Older Adults, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Deale.
From a single chorale and a few dozen singers, Kelly has grown Encore Chorale to 13 chorales in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., and more than 650 singers. Each singer pays tuition of $150 per semesters, fall and spring. A full-time staffer runs the office; three paid part-time conductors, all music professionals, manage four of the 13 chorales.
That leaves Kelly, married, a mother and grandmother who lives in Anne Arundel County, to run nine of the chorales. Since the groups practice weekly, she is constantly shuttling among the senior centers, continuing care/retirement facilities, colleges and Smithsonian Institution Residence Program where the groups are based.
"They are our partners. They provide rehearsal space and concert space. We serve their populations," she says.
Kelly brings an extensive musical background to Encore Chorale. She performed with area opera companies, taught at local schools and transformed the Women's Glee Club of the U.S. Naval Academy from a 15-woman auxiliary to the men's glee club to a 60-voice ensemble that performs in prominent venues.
It was while serving as director of the Levine School of Music, in Arlington, Va., that Kelly became involved in research that eventually led to Encore Chorale. Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the George Washington University Center for Aging, Health and Humanities asked her to form senior adult choruses for a study on creativity and aging.
The National Endowment for the Arts funded the three-year study, which showed that seniors who participate in a professionally run arts program have improved health, fewer falls and higher morale
"I decided to work only with seniors," says Kelly, who founded Encore Chorale as an artistic outlet for seniors or, in her words, "a sophisticated chorale program for older adults."
Of the 13 chorales, the Greater Baltimore JCC/Myerberg Senior Center Encore Chorale is the only one in the Baltimore metro area. Each chorale has its own, unique flavor.
The average age of singers in the Myerberg chorale is 72 versus 88 at some chorales and just retired at others. With about 35 singers, Myerberg is one of the smaller chorales, versus 72 at Anne Arundel Community College and 140 at the Smithsonian Institution. With only a handful of male members, Myerberg has the worst ratio of men to women singers; other chorales are 15 to 30 percent male.
Kelly is trying to build up the Myerberg group's numbers, particularly men. Everyone is welcome to join, the policy in all the chorales. There are no auditions. Prior singing experience is not required although the Myerberg Encore Chorale seems to appeal to people with some musical background.
Barbara Peisach sang in her high school glee club. The Pikesville resident, a mother and grandmother, heard about the chorale from a friend. "I love singing, I enjoy the people and Jeanne is fantastic," says Peisach, a soprano and chorale member for several years.
Gretel White played the cello and sang in her church choir. White, a Pikesville resident, mother and grandmother, works as a travel agent, which gives her the flexibility to attend the rehearsals. "I love the music we sing. I love learning new music," says White, an alto who joined the group five years ago.
In her younger days, Annette Sussman acted and sang in community theater. The Pikesville mother and grandmother, another alto, says "I love when we perform in concerts. We dress all in black and I have red hair."
Among the few male singers, Norman Wigutow, of Pikesville, a retired sales manager, had a singing career in New York. "In my early life, I sang professionally on Broadway," says the Pikesville resident, a bass, who enjoys "this vocal outlet, and the professionalism of Jeanne."
Likewise, Ronald Fradkin, a retired furniture store owner, enjoys working with Jeanne. "She pulls out of us the best performance we're capable of," says the Stevenson husband, father and grandfather who played trumpet in his school days and also sings tenor in Heart of Maryland, a barbershop chorus.
"The repertoire changes twice a year," for fall and summer semesters, he says. "It's a challenge to learn the new songs. But we're all seniors and it's important to keep the brain working."
Each season culminates with a free concert, held at a high-profile venue. Because all the chorales learn the same repertoire, different groups are combined at the concerts. The concerts often feature up to 160 singers.
"The concerts get a full house. The audiences love them," says Kelly, whose Myerberg concerts are scheduled for May 17 and May 19 at Anne Arundel Community College and the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills, respectively. She also offers summertime cruises and camp retreats for members.
"My satisfaction," says Kelly, "is helping the senior singers to excel —- and have a blast doing it."