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Sentimental Journey Singers Soar Despite Dementia

Sentimental Journey Singers Group

Music has always played a big part in the lives of Buck and Betty Buckeridge. The Leesburg couple, both in their 90s, met in the band room at Michigan State University, where both played the clarinet. Within weeks, Buck was telling friends that he had met the girl he would marry.

Now looking forward to their 73rd anniversary in June, music is still a big part of their lives. Once a week, they join other participants with the Sentimental Journey Singers chorale in Fairfax.

“We love it. It’s very good for her,” Buck said of his wife. “We both have some memory loss; she more than I.”

Betty said she enjoys the group because “I’m singing.”

The Sentimental Journey Singers are one of the chorales that are part of Encore Creativity for Older Adults. But unlike most of Encore’s other chorales in the Greater Washington area, the Sentimental Journey Singers are comprised mostly of people with mild to moderate dementia or related cognitive issues and their companions. The Buckeridges are members of the group that meets weekly at Insight Memory Care Center in Fairfax. Encore hopes to start another Sentimental Journey Singers chorale next fall in Montgomery County, Md.

“Music is housed in a part of the brain that is not affected by dementia,” said Mary Ann East, director of the Fairfax Sentimental Journey Singers. Participating in the weekly rehearsals – and twice a year concerts—gives the singers “a sense of accomplishment and appreciation because they feel they are part of something that is appreciated.”

On a recent Monday, 21 of the group’s 28 members fill the seats in a large room at Insight to rehearse three of the six songs they are working on for the spring semester. While Rachel Thompson, a music therapist, plays at the keyboard, East warms up the singers’ vocal cords with a series of scales.

Soon they are singing “Over the Rainbow” with melodic harmony. “Hit the high note,” sings East, a soprano, as the song reaches its climax.

Outside, blue skies shine through the room’s windows. Inside, the real work is devoted to the many parts and verses of “Blue Skies,” by Irving Berlin. Line by line the singers go through the song, with the companions often pointing out the lines in their music binders. East roams in front of the room, now working with the sopranos, now with the altos and baritones. Sometimes they go over just a few words again and again to get the right notes.

“Baritones, which way do the dots go?” East asks, noting, “This is jazz, and in jazz nothing ends the way you think it’s going to end.”

There is plenty of laughter.

Working with singers, some of whom have dementia, is much like working with other choral groups, East said, except the pace is a bit slower. She chooses songs that would be familiar to people who were in their teens or 20s in the 1940s and ‘50s. She looks for arrangements that have a bit of challenge but are not too complex.

Nearly an hour into the rehearsal, after a successful rendition all the way through “Blue Skies,” Thompson moves out from behind the keyboard to conduct some seated exercises.

“Tell me something that is healthy to eat,” she asks the group. Someone shouts “salad.”

“Tell me how you would make a salad,” Thompson says. Soon the group is pantomiming making a salad. Then they are moving their arms forward and back. Rolling their wrists. Rolling their ankles. Pretending to wash their hands, all the way up to the elbows.

The final song of the rehearsal is “Down by the Riverside.”

“Baritones and altos, raise you right hand,” East says. “Repeat: I promise I will not sing the melody.”

Once again East works with the different singers going through the complex arrangement before finishing with a rousing rendition.

East ends the rehearsal with a few words about being cautious and not coming to practice if participants are feeling even a bit ill. The usual cheese and crackers have been replaced with pre-packaged snacks.

Skeets Meyer and Ed Bomsey, two of the participants, said they come because the group gives them an opportunity to meet people and they enjoy singing. “We do well together. You get a chance to see and help other people,” Meyer said.

Nancy Scott, a companion for Kathryn Wuebker, said, “I like to sing with her.”

The Singers meet for 15 weeks in the spring and fall capping each semester with a concert. The next one will be Sunday, May 3, at 3 p.m. at St. George’s United Methodist Church, 4910 Ox Rd, Fairfax, Va. The free concert will feature Fairfax Sentimental Journey Singers and Fairfax and Reston Encore Chorales

Registration for the fall semester will open sometime in July with rehearsals starting in mid-September. The cost is $195 for participants diagnosed with dementia or similar cognitive impairment and $25 for companions or volunteers. Participants must be at least 55 years old.

“We’re always looking for volunteers,” East said. Eventually she hopes the group will reach 60 singers.

“There are no auditions,” she said. “Anybody can sing, they just have to have the desire to come and sing.”

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