Take an old song and make it better

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday August 26, 2012

The ancient Scriptures say “everything has its season.”  But Jeanne Kelly – who lives in Tracy’s Landing with her husband Larry while devoting her bonus years to advancing the performing arts among older adults – says there is at least one exception.  “As long as you can breathe and speak, you can sing.  The gift of song is a life-long gift.  When it is cultivated, it benefits both you and others, especially in later life.”

Jeanne Kelly is a remarkably interesting and gifted woman.  Her name will be familiar to many in the Annapolis area because she served as conductor of the Women’s Glee Club at the U.S. Naval Academy from 1987-95; she also conducted the Georgetown University Concert Choir.

Also a performer, Jeanne made her professional operatic debut with the Washington Opera at the Kennedy Center in 1978 and performed major roles with the Baltimore Opera, Opera Delaware, Colorado’s Central City Opera, Annapolis Opera – and solo performances with the Baltimore and National Symphonies.

The performer who transitioned to conductor and arts administrator is also an educator.  Jeanne operated a private voice studio in Maryland and Virginia and served on the faculties of Hood College in Frederick, Maryland; the Baltimore School for the Arts; and, most recently, the Levine School of Music in Washington.

But her life changed in the period 2001-2004 when she was choral director for a study of creativity and aging.  This ground-breaking research by George Washington University’s Center for Health, Aging and the Humanities with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities showed that when older adults engaged in singing, acting, dance or participation in a band or orchestra under professional coaching, they experienced many positive health outcomes.  These included fewer doctor visits, fewer falls, fewer prescriptions and over-the-counter medications, less dependency and better overall health – including better mental health such as improved morale and less depression and loneliness – than those in the study’s control group.

Jeanne worked side-by-side with study director, the late Dr. Gene Cohen, a trail-blazing physician and Ph.D. gerontologist who found that new brain cells are created as long as people in their bonus years keep trying new pursuits – and those who do have almost limitless capacity for intellectual growth. When he started his career, most in the medical establishment treated aging as a disease, but Dr. Cohen found – and many others have now confirmed – that the later-life years can be a time of tremendous growth and creativity.

“The magic bullets [about aging] are all blanks,” he once said, advising people to rely on “intellectual sweating” instead of pills and herbs for good mental health. “Make it a point to learn something new, instead of turning to hormones or ginkgo biloba.”  Gay Hanna at National Center for Creative Aging noted at his passing that he “…moved the [aging] paradigm from a focus on problems to a focus on potentials.”

Because she was “present at the creation” of these fresh, new ideas about positive aging Jeanne Kelly decided to devote her bonus years to providing accessible, high-quality programs so that older adults could engage in the performing arts to enrich their lives and improve their health and well-being .  Soon after the study was concluded, Jeanne might have retired.  Instead, in 2007, she founded Encore Creativity for Older Adults.

Encore is a large and growing Maryland-based non-profit.  It is already the nation’s largest choral program for adults 55 years and older. There are now 13 Encore Chorales with more than 600 singers in the Annapolis-DC-Baltimore area; average age is 72.

In addition to chorales, Encore holds summer institutes at Maryland’s St. Mary’s College, and another each summer at Chautauqua Institution in New York for older adults who seek arts education and performance opportunities under the direction of professional artists.  And now Encore affiliates are being established outside the Washington-Annapolis-Baltimore metro area.

Jeanne, with her passion for music, education and positive aging, is always on message.  She says, “You’re never too old to try something new or resurrect and perfect a talent you have closeted.  Each time an individual attends a choral practice, he or she experiences a renewed sense of self-control and on-going satisfaction that comes when you master something.  And because these programs all involve participation with others, social engagement is high.  The result: True health promotion and a reduction in the risk factors the drive the need for long-term care.”    In fact, she is so convincing and the research is so credible, it makes you wonder why those trying to contain the spiraling costs of Medicare don’t invest as much in singing as they do in syringes.

She is also always on the job.  Not long into our conversation she said, “You sound like you might have a good voice.  Why don’t you join our chorale at Anne Arundel Community College that begins in September?”   As I fumbled for excuses, she said, “Look, you should try these things you write about.  Besides, Encore provides a wonderful environment for older adults regardless of their experience or ability.”   I thought, “What a gracious way of acknowledging that my voice might not be that good after all.”  I gave her a nervous smile, and we moved on to other topics, but since then I’ve been thinking: Maybe I’ll give it a try come September.

Looking through the Encore website –  – I saw a quote by Frank Clark, the down-home Midwestern author of “The Country Parson,” famous in the last generation for humor and aphorisms that made people think.  He said, “We’ve put more effort into helping folks reach old age than into helping them enjoy it.”  How true, I thought.

This past year, Billy Graham, at age 93, published “Nearing Home,” his latest book, noting that old age “is not for wimps.”   It’s an inspiring reflection of a good man who led a good life.  In it he says, “All my life I was taught how to die…but no one ever taught me how I ought to live in my latter years…”

Magic bullets to the challenges of aging may be hard to find, but the benefits – artistic, physical, mental and perhaps even spiritual– and the opportunities for social engagement provided by social inventions like Jeanne Kelly’s Encore are promising.  Indeed Encore is yet another reason to be optimistic that later-life Americans, determined to remain engaged, finding ways to use and refine their gifts, will find bonus years activities that are both productive and satisfying while helping to repair the world.

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