- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

Miriam O’Neill found her fountain of youth in music.

The 78-year-old Arlington resident is one of about 120 members of the Senior Singers’ Chorale, a group made up of three senior citizen choirs in Northern Virginia that are sponsored by the nonprofit Levine School of Music.

The average age of the singers is 80, but their spirit in song belies their number of years.

“It’s fabulous, it is the best thing that ever happened to anybody,” Mrs. O’Neill said. “It helps your brain, it keeps you alert. I can’t praise it enough.”

The chorale was formed five years ago in conjunction with a George Washington University study to determine the effect of arts education on the aging process.

Its singers come from the Goodwin House retirement communities in Alexandria and Baileys Crossroads and from the Langston-Browne Community Center in Arlington.

So far, the study has shown that the senior singers experience better overall health, have fewer falls and take fewer trips to the doctor — effects the groups’ members say stem from an opportunity to participate in musical programs normally geared toward younger singers.

“It’s really an asset,” said K.T. Johnson, 87, a tenor in the Alexandria group. “The rehearsals are fun, [and] they’re rewarding in terms of being able to accomplish something … it’s something you look forward to.”

The choirs practice separately and come together to perform pieces that include challenging medleys from Broadway musicals, as well as holiday and patriotic music. They have held concerts at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, and last week, they performed at the Wardman Park Marriott Hotel for the White House Conference on Aging.

Jeanne Kelly, an accomplished concert singer who has directed the Georgetown University choir and sung with the New York City Opera and National Symphony Orchestra, conducts the senior singers but said she doesn’t take it easy on them because of their age.

“I really don’t treat these seniors any different than I did my younger groups,” Mrs. Kelly said. “Many times, choirs will disinvite older people because [their] voices change. All you have to do is want to learn and want to have a great time.”

Mrs. Kelly said she selects pieces geared toward the seniors’ vocal range, and her singers step up to the challenge — singing superbly and getting into it a bit as well.

“They can be very theatrical,” she said. “When the guys sing ‘Nothing Like a Dame,’ they all get up and it’s fun. … [Conducting the chorale] is the most rewarding thing I have ever done with my musical career, hands down.”

For the singers, the chorale has served to show them that age is no longer a limit to what they can do.

Some of the performers are in their mid-90s, making Mrs. O’Neill, a soprano, a spring chicken by comparison.

“You see these older people walking in on walkers or canes, and you say ‘I’m gonna be that active when I’m 90-something,’” Mrs. O’Neill said. “I’m gonna do this even if they roll me in on a wheelchair.”

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