Sometime long ago, back through the tunnel of time, I remember hearing that there was a group that performed in Northampton, MA, a musical group comprised of elderly people. In that same vague morass of time, I cannot recall how it might have happened that I heard them sing. The group was called the Young at Heart Chorus. They amazed me with their verve, their musicality, their humor and their passion for singing together. I wanted some of the Kool-Aid they were drinking. “Sign me up, “ I thought. I marched up to the program director and asked if I might be able to audition to sing with the group. She laughed and suggested that I return in thirty years or so; minimum age to join at the time was 55 to 60. I was twenty-four. I did what I knew I could do; I wrote a short piece for the local newspaper describing them and one of their upcoming venues. Of all the things I was looking forward to about aging, joining the Young at Heart Chorus topped the list.
Imagine my surprise when I moved to my home in Whately in 2005 and found my closest neighbor on the adjoining tract of mountainous land was the program director for the Young at Heart Chorus. I ranted, raved and gushed with enthusiasm.
“I am close,” I said. “Another year or two. Bingo, I will meet the minimum age requirement.”
She looked sad and wrung her hands.
“Dawn, the minimum age is more like 70 now.” NOOOOO!! How cruel. A bait and switch by God? I agreed to the aging process simply so that I could join this singing group. And now, I have another fifteen or twenty years to go? How cruel a fate. Just about that time, a documentary about the Young at Heart Chorus was filmed.** I watched it and found my fervor further fueled. I was disappointed to think that it would be my destiny not sing to in a large choral group until I was starting to buy only ripe bananas.
Once again, fate played by her own rules. When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard, I knew I had to create an entire new life. While my identity remained (predominantly) untouched, I have redesigned my day-to- day existence to more closely meet my needs and interests. Slowly, I have met people and to layer activities onto my calendar. I wanted to see what worked and didn’t work for me.Just before Christmas, I went into the local tan, buff and polish shop to have my nails done. I commented on what a nice holiday color the mature woman next to me had chosen. She told me was getting ready to give a concert that evening. She asked me to come listen at the Edgartown Federated Church. She promised “fun” Christmas music. I asked if someone was interested in joining, were there auditions at a certain time. “Heavens, no, the Island Community Chorus is open to all those who love to sing. There is a range spanning from novices to professional musicians. We are held together by our love of music and by the director, Peter Boak. Come to the first practice in the new year.” I asked if I should check in with someone….”I can’t think of who, better than me, I was one of the original founders. I am officially inviting you.” That’s life on an island.
The next day, I went to the Island Community Chorus’s matinee performance of Christmas music. It ranged from holy to humorous. It was a milestone for me. It was the first time I went to a social event, by myself, and used my wheelchair so I could sit comfortably for the entire performance. It was as if a small door opened with the possibility that I just might be able to do this. From the program, I tore out the list of all of the member’s names. I stuck it on a little bulletin board by my fridge. I did not attend the first rehearsal at Trinity Church on the Methodist Campgrounds due to inclimate weather. I was relieved that no-one else did either.
When the next Monday rolled around, once again, I was faced with a challenge that demanded a whole new level of independence for me. I could only make it through a two-hour rehearsal if I could sit in a recumbent position in my wheelchair on my ROHO cushion. I knew that would be my big activity for the day. I carefully conserved energy by laying low and reading, writing and paying bills. Previously, when I had used my wheelchair, someone helped me lift it in and out of the trunk. I had to figure out a way to do it myself. With a few bangs and pinches, I managed somehow. Thankfully, I was able to crunch through the snow to the ramp that led to a side door of the church. Unfortunately, my wheelchair did not fit through the door. With the help of two men (whom I later tagged as the Director and the Accompanist), I partially folded my wheelchair to get it into the church. I was perspiring by the time I was in the sanctuary. I introduced myself to two women who were greeting people as they arrived. They welcomed me.
No talk of an audition. No request of pedigree. They didn’t even inquire if I could sight-read music. No, the woman I called, “the Woman of Smiling Eyes,” asked what voice I sing.
Tentatively, I put forth, “Usually second alto, but I can certainly be flexible.”
“Let’s get you settled,” she said. I must have looked ridiculous. I wore an ankle-length down coat, hat, and scarf, cane over one arm, purse over the other and I was pushing my empty wheelchair.
The thing I noticed is that, contrary to what often happens in the world-at-large, nobody paid attention to me. They completely ignored me. What an unexpected act of kindness. Men and women milled about chatting in a good-natured way. There were five minutes left until rehearsal was scheduled to begin and I was not disrupting anyone. (At least, I felt that way!)
The biggest surprise came when I started to go down the aisle to join the other second altos, and oh!, what horror! — my wheelchair was too wide. It would only fit down the center aisle of the church. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how I came to sing first alto. My voice ranges from first alto to tenor, but its richest tones are the deepest. Sacrifices just had to be made. When I positioned my chair at the end of one of the benches of first altos, they welcomed me like a long-lost cousin. Quickly they instructed me to toss my coat and bag into one of the vacant pews in the back of the church, and turn my attention forward. The Director was prompt. He stepped onto the dais that first night promptly at seven and he dismissed us precisely at nine. He did so every rehearsal thereafter until the week before the performance. We practiced for the ensuing twelve weeks or so. It seems to me I learned more from this director than from a morphed combination of any of the previous ones from long ago and far-away. He gently nudged us into finding the proper rhythms, timbres and pitches. There was no ridicule! We could ask clarification about passages without feeling it was unduly burdening his musical genius (though his genius was in evidence, it was never put on display). It was evident that he and his accompanist had a long term working relationship. They often worked seamlessly with nothing more than a nod to convey the desired chord or passage. That first night was another step toward independence for me. I believe that none of the people I met over the past twelve weeks had a clue that I would end up almost spending the entire morning after our practices, flat on my back, recovering from having stayed seated for about an hour and a half past my comfort zone. The triumph came in doing it. I often think of the blessings I have mined from this one venture.
I celebrate that I have music in my life again. I have met wonderful, kind and funny people. Many of them are older than me and have so very much to offer in the way of wisdom and vision. I feel part of something greater than myself. My front door is a four minute commute to the church, a church I have attended since I was seven years old. I have experimented with my independence within the safe harbor of a community that accepts me. Some people ask about my “condition.” I minimize it and try to redirect our conversation as fluidly as possible.
That is pretty much how I found myself onstage of the Performing Arts Center at the Martha’s Vineyard High School, dressed in black, with about another 99 other people, singing Mendelssohn and Parry on a Saturday night in April. A full orchestra and four soloists dressed up our show. When it came time to take a bow, my neighbors all around me stood, while I stayed seated in my wheelchair. My neighbor to the left of me took my hand, raised it over my head and waved it in the familiar gesture of victory. After our performance, I was putting away my notebook and name tag for the Island Community Chorus. I found the page of paper that I had torn out from the Christmas program and had posted by the refrigerator. With a pencil, I checked off the many names that I could now put with faces. My mind flashed back on what one of my first alto friends said to me as I was pushing my wheelchair off the stage after our performance the previous night, “You must feel really proud.” While I politely demurred, in retrospect, I kind of think I should have said,
“You are DAMN right I feel proud. I fulfilled a version of a thirty-year dream tonight -- from a wheelchair, no less!” Sure, it wasn’t how I imagined it, but it was recognizable and I was at the helm feeling for all the world — Young At Heart.
*This Walker George documentary entitled, “Young@Heart," is available on Netflix.com. Film clips with "Fix You" with Fred Knittle (RIP), "Nothing Compares 2 U" with Patsy Linderme (RIP), and "Forever Young" with soloists Elaine Fligman (RIP), Jack Schnepp, Lenny Fontaine (RIP), and Eileen Hall (RIP) can be found on the Young at Heart Chorus YouTube channel.