In her 17 years as a choral music conductor, the words Jeanne Kelly has uttered more than any other are, “Watch me.”
“I bet I have said ‘Watch me’ over 10 million times,” the Annapolis resident reflected earlier this week, with a smile and a sigh. “They’ve got to have their heads out of their scores.”
This weekend, Kelly retires from saying “Watch me,” and will sit back, relax and simply be seen. The 72-year-old will celebrate stepping down as artistic director from Encore Creativity for Older Adults with a gala dinner at the J.W. Marriott in Washington, D.C., on Friday, and on Saturday with a choral concert at Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda. (A handful of $150 tickets remain for the dinner, while the concert is general admission, with a suggested donation of at least $10. All patrons must wear masks.)
Members of more than a dozen DMV-area Encore choirs — including many singers from her 82-member Encore Chorale of Annapolis — will join together to form a 300-voice choir to perform at Strathmore.
All singers are over the age of 55. But don’t expect seniors warbling Golden Oldies in unison. These are sopranos, altos, tenors and basses singing in meticulously rehearsed harmony.
“We keep it as professional as we can,” Kelly says. “We talk a lot about technique.”
“There’s a certain amount of pride in what we are doing,” adds Janie Powers, 75, a Tracys Landing resident who sings the alto section of Encore Chorale of Annapolis. “That carries over to our performance.”
As a professional soprano, Kelly earned a master’s degree from Peabody Conservatory and performed with the Washington National Opera, Annapolis Opera, the former Baltimore Opera and many other companies. She retired from solo roles at 47 to focus on teaching, mostly at the Arlington campus of Levine Music. Her work with older adults became full-time in 2005.
When George Washington University psychiatrist Dr. Gene D. Cohen heard about Kelly’s voice classes at retirement communities, he asked her to form three choirs and participate in a study funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Kelly said. “But I said I’d give it a try.”
“The Creativity and Aging Study: The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults,” is now regarded as the gold standard in geriatric psychiatry, proving that while music therapy and like-minded programs are great, older adults fare even better when they are challenged by professional artists to perform at the best.
Over a two-year period, Cohen, Kelly and their colleagues found that participating in chorales improved singers’ morale, lowered chances of depression and decreased reports of loneliness compared to older adults in control groups.
“They had something to look forward to,” Kelly said. “They had a sense of purpose and someone who believed in them.”
“It was the first study of its kind,” said Beth Bienvenu, director of the NEA’s Office of Accessibility, in a statement. “Since then, the creative aging field has flourished and expanded.”
Encore has been key to that expansion. Kelly founded the nonprofit when the study concluded, and over the past 15 years, Encore’s reach steadily grew throughout the mid-Atlantic. When the number of choirs hit nine, she hired additional conductors and franchised her curriculum to create affiliate choirs in New York, Delaware and Ohio.
Members pay tuition, but scholarships are available.
“Anyone who wants to sing can sing,” Kelly said.
And as her friend Powers points out, “There are no auditions. Thank you, Jesus.”
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Each group performs a spring concert at as grand a venue as Encore can book. And over the summers, Encore has offered European tours and camps at St. John’s College, Washington College, St. Mary’s College and the Chautauqua Institution.
In cities like Annapolis where the classically focused chorales did well, some singers expressed interest in broadening their repertoire, prompting Kelly to found what she calls ROCKS choirs, as well as summer camps that focus on pop music. For example, repertoire for the 2022 week at Washington College includes a suite of songs from the film “Forrest Gump,” “Build Me Up, Buttercup” as made famous by The Foundations and “You Learn” from Alanis Morrisette’s iconic 1995 album “Jagged Little Pill.”
Believe it or not, Gen-Xers who were 30 when Morrisette first instructed them to live and learn are now old enough to sing in Encore ROCKS.
To ensure that older Americans present and future still have a place to sing, Encore’s board has hired a new CEO and artistic director. Bryan J. Isaac, founder of the Church Circle Singers in Annapolis, stepped up as artistic director, while Joshua Vickery moved from Florida to Annapolis to handle administrative duties.
“I laugh about it, but it’s taken two men to replace me,” Kelly said.
She’ll still be involved with Encore, perhaps as a conductor emeritus. But her husband Larry Kelly, a technology consultant, retired this month too, and the couple intends to sail their boat to the Bahamas in October and stay until spring. Then she’ll come back to Annapolis and reassess what she needs to still feel creatively fulfilled as she ages herself.
As Kelly signs every email, she intends to “Sing on!”