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Making a joyful noise — and maybe a healthier life

Members of the Community of Voices choir sing at the Western Addition Senior Center.

Members of the Community of Voices choir sing at the Western Addition Senior Center.

By Judy Goddess

MANY AGREE THAT choir music can be a joyful noise. And choir members often find singing fulfilling and fun. But a new study recently launched locally aims to uncover whether singing in a choir can actually help older adults have longer and healthier lives.

As part of the study, the 15-member Community of Voices choir gave a lively gospel performance on March 20 at the Western Addition Senior Center at Fillmore and Turk led by Maestro Curtis and his wife, Nola Curtis. Maestro Curtis, a renowned San Francisco Bay Area music legend, producer and author, has a background in classical music as well as jazz, gospel, R&B, funk, folk and country. Haruwn Wesley on upright bass and Larry Douglas on trumpet accompanied the choir at the concert.

“I know singing in the choir makes people happier,” says the center’s director, Robin Bill. “People who were quiet when they first came to our center in September are now stepping up. You can see the improvement in the choir from when they first met to now.” The Western Addition choir previously performed at the City Hall celebration of Kwanzaa and at the Parc 55 hotel, and another performance is planned for the fall.

“We believe singing in a choir and other creative arts can promote healthy aging,” says Julene Johnson, a UCSF professor and founder and director of the Community of Voices study. “We were looking for a way for older people to remain independent and engaged. We knew that to have an effect the activity had to be meaningful, engaging and challenging. The creative arts do that.”

Other smaller and less rigorously designed studies have explored the impact of singing in a choir, but this is the first large-scale look at the physical strength, balance, memory and moods of singers versus non-singers. Singing has already been shown to improve shortness of breath, which is experienced by about a third of all older adults.

The current study is a collaboration between UCSF, the San Francisco Community Music Center and 12 senior centers throughout the city. It’s funded by a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Study results will be released in 2017, but many participants are already singing the choir’s praises.

The Western Addition choir performed in City Hall during the celebration of Kwanzaa

The Western Addition choir performed in City Hall during the celebration of Kwanzaa

“When I retired, everything started giving way. I thought maybe I shouldn’t have retired,” says Haines C. Morgan. “When I heard about the choir, I joined up and I’m feeling better. It gave me a chance to meet other people — and I can sing again.” A retired executive chef and Fillmore resident, Haines, fittingly nicknamed “Happy,” is an experienced singer and entertainer who performed R&B at clubs in the Fillmore during the ’60s.

A veteran of the karaoke circuit, Miguel Garcia, agreed. “Music has always been a passion and an escape for me,” he says. “This is a great opportunity.”

Singing experience is not required for Community of Voices participants. The choirs are open to those 60 and older with an interest in singing, a willingness to complete three study interviews with UCSF staffers and the commitment to attend a year of weekly rehearsals and perform in three public concerts.

Choir member Al Rodriguez recalls being fortified by music as a youngster. “In the summertime in the Philippines, where I grew up, the boys would walk miles to serenade a girl,” he says. “We’d each sing a song and then the girl would sing her own song to us. She’d also cook a meal for us. That was my singing experience before I joined this choir.”

Rodriguez is new to gospel music. “I never heard this kind of music, but I like it,” he says. “And I like the choir. Everyone is friendly and cooperative, and I love to sing.”

Beverly Quan, a recent retiree, was drawn to the choir as a learning experience. “I sang in school choirs decades ago, and thought it was time to refresh this skill as an older adult,” she says. “Also, I wanted to keep my memory alive. This helps me focus, particularly the memory work.” And for Quan, there’s another benefit. “It’s really special being able to share this with an audience,” she says, “being able to spread our happiness around.”