Where a love of music is never forgotten

Giving Voice Chorus unites people with memory loss and their caregivers in song

Choral director Jeanie Brindley-Barnett leads the Giving Voice Chorus through a rehearsal at MacPhail Center for Music. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Gabby Matzdorff and her mother, Donna Lou Leehey, joined Giving Voice Chorus because they were looking for something to do together. Her mother, Matzdorff said, “has always been musical.”

As they chatted after a recent rehearsal at MacPhail Center for Music, Leehey didn’t remember that she sang soprano in her high school choir, or that the group went on to win a state competition.

“Some of these things happened so long ago, you forget,” she said, after hearing her daughter recount the story. But Leehey hadn’t forgotten music’s place in her life.

“I raised five children,” she said. “I had to sing quite a bit to get them to sleep.”

About half of Giving Voice Chorus’ members are dealing with age-related memory loss, typically early to mid-stage Alzheimer’s disease. The other half is made up of their care partners: the husbands and wives, children and grandchildren who help them live at home.

“This is a group of people who are who they are today,” said Marge Ostroushko, co-president of the Giving Voice Initiative, which recently developed an online toolkit so that others can replicate the two-year-old chorus’ model. If someone is struggling that day, or if they tell the same story they told at rehearsal last week, that’s OK, Ostroushko said.

“Nobody makes mistakes here,” said Al Trostel, who sings in the chorus with his wife, Parker.

Al, a former professor of business administration and chair of his department at the University of St. Thomas, was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment about four years ago. He has been married to Parker, a minister, for 43 years, and the couple lives in Uptown.

Al still drives — even better than before, according to Parker — but his mild cognitive impairment led him to pare back his life and avoid situations that made him confused or uncomfortable. Their weekly rehearsals at MacPhail are “joyous,” Parker said.

“It makes your brain move, and it’s fun,” she said.

Matzdorff and her mother drive into MacPhail each week from Minnetrista, and the 40-minute car ride is just long enough to listen to a CD of the chorus’ current songs. They’ll listen again, and sing along together, on the way home.

“Oh my gosh, it’s my favorite day of the week,” Matzdorff said. “Every week on Wednesday, mom says, It feels like it’s been a long time since we’ve been to choir.”

‘A choir family’

Ostroushko, a radio and events producer, developed the idea for the chorus with her friend Mary Lenard, a former executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Minnesota-North Dakota Chapter. Both have personal experience with the disease; Lenard’s late father had Alzheimer’s, as does Ostroushko’s mother, who lives in Rochester, N.Y.

They brought the idea of a chorus to a local support group for people with Alzheimer’s and their caretakers, and when the enthusiastic response led them to start searching for a music director, they set a lunch meeting with Jeanie Brindley-Barnett, a charismatic choral director with extensive experience in adult music education. Brindley-Barnett co-founded MacPhail Music for Life, a program that engages adults aged 55 and older in music classes and ensembles.

Brindley-Barnett directs the chorus, which began meeting for weekly two-hour rehearsals at MacPhail’s Antonello Hall in 2014. She started with 30 singers; today, Brindley-Barnett directs a group of 60 in the morning and another group of 40 at afternoon rehearsal. A new choir started in St. Paul this fall.

Ostroushko said many in their group sang in choruses, church choirs and barbershop quartets. Some left those groups when they could no longer fully participate.

Others, like Jerry Parks and his wife, Karen, who live in Plymouth, didn’t ever consider themselves particularly musical.

When Jerry was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a decade ago, at age 56, he was determined to continuing learning, and Karen said he talked about taking up the guitar. He heard about Giving Voice Chorus at The Gathering, a regular meet-up for people experiencing memory loss, and ended up joining that inaugural group of 30 singers.

Jerry, who is in the moderate stage of the disease, said he never thought of himself as a singer, and was deeply embarrassed when, as an elementary student, he had to sing a solo in front of his class.

“Sixty years later, he’s learning he can sing,” Karen said.

She said Giving Voice Chorus is the “highlight of our week.”

“This has been an outlet for me, too,” Karen said. “The socializing for the caregivers is fabulous.

“It’s another support group, absolutely. We are a family, a choir family.”

Sharing their toolkit

News stories about Giving Voice Chorus have drawn national and even international interest in the program. A new toolkit in development for much of the past year launched in September on the nonprofit’s website, and it outlines in detail how to start an independent chorus for people experiencing memory loss.

“It’s not a small thing to do. Frankly, it needs to be done well,” Ostroushko said. “The reason that we did the toolkit is we feel like we’ve really made this work, and that’s what the singers have said to us.”

There are already groups starting up in Eau Claire, Wis., and Chicago. The Health Arts Society, a foundation based in Vancouver, British Columbia, plans to launch its own chorus in February and recently sent music director Kathryn Nicholson for a training session in Minneapolis.

Nicholson described the chorus the “culmination” of her training as a choral director, nurse and counselor at a hospice care facility.

“It’s magnificent really, the idea,” she said.

At the pre-Thanksgiving rehearsal, Nicholson stepped up to the podium to lead the chorus in “Return Again,” a chant-like song composed by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. She divided the singers and had them singing different verses at the same time in a round.

The chorus, rehearsing for a December performance, ran through a repertoire that ranged from “Ode to Joy” to “Daddy Sang Bass” to the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from my Friends.” They closed the rehearsal with “Happy Trails,” then filtered out of the hall in pairs to put on their winter coats in the lobby before heading out into the snow. Part of the group stayed behind to eat a chili lunch while flurries blew past the second-story windows.

These days, Anne Sterner is usually one of those volunteers serving snacks and cleaning up after rehearsal. Sterner joined the chorus in 2014 with her mother, Doris, who was 83 and struggling with dementia.

“It was a really difficult time for her,” Sterner said, describing the kind of isolation people experience when they can no longer cook or drive for themselves. “… The things she did all her life weren’t there anymore.”

Singing with Giving Voice Choir was something they both enjoyed, and, for Sterner, who lives in Southwest Minneapolis, it was a relief to have a place where she didn’t have to talk about her mom’s disease. The other care partners just knew. That’s why, a year after her mother passed away, she’s still volunteering with the chorus.

“I’ll do that forever if they continue to let me, because it meant everything to us,” she said.

If you go

Minneapolis Giving Voice Chorus fall concert

When: 1 p.m. Dec. 17

Where: Olson Middle School, 4551 W. 102nd St., Bloomington

Info: Tickets are $12. To order, call MacPhail Center for Music, 321-0100.

Donna Lou Leehey and daughter Gabby Matzdorff sing together in the chorus. Photo by Dylan Thomas
Donna Lou Leehey and daughter Gabby Matzdorff sing together in the chorus. Photo by Dylan Thomas