Off Key Chorale uses the power of music to give Parkinson's patients a voice.
There’s no question about the emotional healing power of music. But if one needs proof of its ability to physically heal, he need look no further than the Off Key Chorale. The project, formed in 2012 as a collaboration between the Neuro Challenge Foundation, Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota and Key Chorale, uses choral singing as a form of therapy for Parkinson’s patients.
As the effects of Parkinson’s Disease progress, patients often lose the strength and volume of their voices. Some lose the ability to speak altogether — a profoundly impacting and isolating symptom.
When Doreen Sutherland and Judith Bell, of the Neuro Challenge Foundation, first approached Joseph Caulkins, artistic director of Key Chorale, with the idea of forming a therapeutic choir, he had a full workload. He was conducting five choral ensembles already, and he wasn’t sure he could take on another project.
“I read this article about a woman with Parkinson’s,” he says. “It had taken everything from her, but through a choir program, she was able to reclaim one thing. She had always wanted to sing, and this allowed her to perform. It was so touching. I told myself I don’t care how busy I am — I’m doing this.”
Caulkins and Lee Dougherty Ross, of Artist Series Concerts, teamed up with Dr. Dean Sutherland, a neurologist and medical director of the Neuro Challenge Foundation, to develop singing exercises based in existing therapy, catered specifically to the disease. Breathing techniques, posture and vowel shaping — all inherent to singing — were also beneficial in improving vocal strength.
“It’s almost not even therapy,” says Caulkins. “As a patient, if you enjoy what you’re doing, it doesn’t feel like work. You’re much more likely to give it 100%. Losing your ability to be heard and to socialize is huge. Something like this provides a great sense of family — and it requires a ton of bravery. It’s amazing to me.”
“This is probably the best hour of my week,” says Dougherty Ross. “They’re having fun; I’m having fun. Any time I can use music to make a difference, that’s what it’s all about.”
No pressure. No expectations. Just fun. Off Key Chorale’s motto is printed at the top of each of Caulkins’ lesson plans as a reminder. The choir, he says, is less about performance and more about participation. And it doesn’t take long to see why the members love it.
At a recent rehearsal, Dougherty Ross sits behind the piano, beaming as she plays light, upbeat music while the singers find their seats and begin vocal warm-ups.
“My Country Tis of Thee,” “Do Re Mi” — even the witch’s guard chant from “The Wizard of Oz” — get the group loosened up.
“Mouths wide; jaws dropped; soft palates,” Caulkins says from behind his music stand. “Look at that posture — perfect!”
The singers are loud, unified — and perhaps most importantly — proud. The atmosphere is fun, but Caulkins stresses that he doesn’t go easy on the singers.
“We’re tackling tough material,” he says. “There are songs in Hebrew; it’s challenging stuff. My approach shouldn’t change, and it doesn’t. I treat them like anyone else I work with. It’s my job to critique. I do it constructively, and with humor, but each of them is simply one of my singers. There’s no asterisk.”
June Schuer has sung with the Off Key Chorale since its start. She says the singing improves her vocal strength, but it’s also a way to socialize and have fun.
“Therapy is like work,” she says. “This isn’t work; this is fun.”
“Even the name gives you a little chuckle,” she adds, with a laugh. “I like to call us the OK Chorale. We’re OK.”
The group works on two programs each year, and at the end of each eight-week rehearsal session, the singers have performed in retirement homes and at other private performances. On May 3, however, Off Key Chorale will take the stage at the Unitarian Universalist Church, accompanied by members of the Key Chorale, and with musical accompaniment by Artist Series Concerts, for its first public performance.
Jean Russell, who is in her fourth season with the group, says she’s looking forward to the debut.
“It’s exciting to share what we’ve been working on,” she says. “But it’s bittersweet. We become like a family here, and we’ll have to wait until next season to see each other.”
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