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This is a place where our classical hosts, interns and artists can share their stories, viewpoints and point of view on topics related to classical music and the arts in general. Come back to this page often to read the latest and share your comments.

Introducing ENCORE: A Chorus for People Living with Dementia and their Caregivers 

A new chorus began rehearsals at the Eastman Community Music School (ECMS) last week- the ENCORE Chorus. Designed to create connection through music making and bring joy to members living with a diagnosis of dementia, the group is supported by volunteers of all ages who sing as part of the chorus and assist with the operation. Participants join the group with their caregiver, who is also required to sing. The pair is matched up with one or two volunteers who will stay with them throughout their time with the chorus. The volunteer’s presence provides encouragement not only to aid the person with dementia but also to alleviate- for a time- the responsibility of support borne by their care partners.

The ENCORE chorus was created through a partnership among ECMS, Eastman Performing Arts Medicine and the University of Rochester Medical Center, and other programs and departments of the university. The chorus had its first rehearsal this Monday, March 18th, and is still accepting new participants.

The director of the ENCORE chorus, Erica Porter Smith shared that this chorus welcomes people of all ages, experiences, and musical backgrounds.

That's really what this ENCORE chorus is all about, forming a community, not just among the folks who have a diagnosis, but with their caregivers and volunteers.
Erica Porter Smith, ENCORE Chorus director

A woman with blonde hair, blue eyes and a red shirt
Erica Porter Smith, ENCORE Chorus Director

When possible, participants have been intentionally matched with volunteers that share commonalities. One pairing even includes two people who have experience playing the dulcimer. Volunteers take on the job of getting to know their participant and caregiver pair and attend to their needs before, during, and after rehearsals.

The ENCORE Chorus will rehearse for ten weeks, culminating with a concert on May 20th at 1:30 p.m. in Eastman’s Kilbourn Hall. The concert will include both the performance and an opportunity for participants to share their own personal journeys. Rehearsals include an hour of music and a half hour of socializing, with snacks and some guided activities, a crucial part of the experience for such an isolating disease. The chorus is an opportunity for people living with dementia and their caregivers to find community and support.

“They're going through a huge life change, changes in their role and their relationship with their loved one who’s living with the diagnosis,” said Smith. This “gives them a space to just enjoy and be the wife or the child, the spouse, the friend, that they should be for the loved one at ENCORE.”

An Antidote to Isolation 

Erica comes into this project with a background in music therapy. She spent the last ten years working at St. Ann’s Community, where she developed both bell and vocal choirs for the residents there. It was during her undergraduate practicum placement that she fell in love with working with people living with Alzheimer’s Disease, the most common form of dementia.

One of her most memorable experiences as a music therapist was during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, a time when the elderly were most isolated, causing detrimental effects especially to those living with dementia. She recalled a music therapy session with a man who had experienced very limited social and musical interactions due to the pandemic. “He came to life, full facial expression, singing, clapping, making music together in a really healthy moment,” said Smith.

This project seeks not only to provide an outlet for creativity and memory care, but also an antidote to the isolation that often comes with living with a diagnosis that affects the brain.

An Eastman Case Study becomes something more

The idea for ENCORE came from Professor and Chair of the Musicology Department at the Eastman School of Music, Michael Alan Anderson, who was the managing editor of the Eastman Case Studies series. The case studies examine issues in the contemporary musical landscape. One of Anderson’s cases included the Phoenix Symphony’s involvement in a research project relating to music and Alzheimer’s Disease.

A man with short hair, blue collared shirt and tie
Michael Anderson, Professor and Chair of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music

The study showed that not only did the programs created for patients living with dementia have a significant positive impact, they actually created a demand for musicians beyond what the orchestra could currently offer. This inspired Anderson to seek how something similar could occur in Rochester.

As part of his quest to address dementia through the musical arts, Anderson connected with geriatrician Dr. Theresa Alison from the University of California, San Francisco. “She asked very plainly, do you have a choir for people that have dementia?” A lightbulb went off. “My background was in choral music. And I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of a chorus.” said Anderson.

Anderson stressed that even with many partners in medicine, the focus of this project remains connection and community. “First and foremost, this is an opportunity for community through music. And the research will come. That is all going to happen behind the scenes when it's time, it will be transparent."

What we want is an environment where people are not labeled. They're actually just a singer, everyone's a singer, everyone's in. And we are careful not to refer to the disease when we're in session.
Michael Anderson

After connecting with Eastman Performing Arts Medicine, Anderson joined the Sound Health Group, which meets monthly to discuss areas of crossover between the Eastman School of Music and the Medical Center at the University of Rochester. Out of these meetings a group of partners was born to launch this exciting project, and the chorus found its home in the Eastman Community Music School.

Music and Memory: The Cloudiness Dissipates 

In the first rehearsal, Smith introduced a few songs from each decade between the 30s-60s, hoping to connect members with memories from when they were in their teens and twenties. Music heard at that time is “often the music that resonates with us and sticks with us as we age.”

You can see that happening in real time when someone with memory decline hears a song that's familiar to them. All the cloudiness kind of dissipates for the time that the music is present. It's amazing to watch the joy and happiness wash over someone's face.
Erica Porter Smith

Smith went on to explain that people with dementia often experience a feeling of insecurity or confusion in their environment; but in the moment that they are making music, they can feel confident and capable. They are in a state of well-being. Music strengthens memory because it is processed in many areas of the brain, described by Smith as “a full brain and body workout”. It provides the opportunity for participants to learn new things, because even with a diagnosis of dementia, the brain can create new neural pathways.

Looking Ahead 

The ENCORE Chorus has big dreams for the future. The team hopes to increase the number of participants, and in time seek to expand the enterprise to reach more people in underserved communities.

“People in Black and Latino communities experience dementia, at a rate of nearly triple the rate of the general population. So there's a really urgent need to address this with those communities,” said Anderson.

The chorus’s connection with ECMS provides music students the opportunity to expand the definition of musical excellence. Anderson hopes more students will get involved with this project in the future. “I would love for music students to be required to spend time in this chorus. That's something very special that we could offer that is not going to be offered any time soon in a conservatory education elsewhere.”

The ENCORE chorus is sure to make waves at the Eastman Community Music School, and in the Rochester community at large by redefining musical excellence, sparking joy, and creating connection and community between generations. If you or someone you know is living with Alzheimer’s Disease or another dementia and seek an opportunity like this, Anderson and Smith say to reach out, as they are still actively adding members to the chorus. And be sure to mark your calendar for their closing concert on May 20th, 1:30 p.m. in Kilbourn Hall at the Eastman School of Music.

Hannah Reich is a mezzo-soprano, voice teacher, and now arts journalist from Atlanta, GA currently based in Rochester, NY. While getting her Master of Music in Voice Performance and Literature at the Eastman School of Music, Hannah also works as an intern with WXXI Classical Radio and teaches voice at the Eastman Community Music School.