Chorus helps seniors make a joyful noise

Elders find friendship, hone vocal skills in regional choir suited for them

October 08, 2006|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,[Sun Reporter]

Seated in several rows of the Sunday school room at Westminster United Methodist Church, the chorus fills the room with sweet harmony.

To the casual listener, it's hard to imagine this is only the group's weekly rehearsal, and not one of their many area performances. Under the exacting direction of Richard Blanchard - a retired professional tenor soloist whose well-trained ear knows how to coax the right sounds out of the singers - the choir is eager to please.

Called the Senior Singers, the ecumenical choir was created in February 2005 with about six singers. It has grown to nearly 60 members and draws them from Carroll and neighboring counties. The group doesn't hold auditions.

The group's youngest member is 60 and its oldest member is 85.

"I've always been in a church choir," said Virginia Emberger, the eldest singer, who lives in Finksburg and attends Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church in Owings Mills. "I love [the choir] - the sociability of it. Everybody is so friendly."

Blanchard, who retired in 1999 after 44 years in church music ministry, said the choir's goal is to provide an outreach for seniors who love music.

"When you retire, you feel like you've been cut off from the world," said Blanchard, 74, who taught music education at McDaniel College in Westminster for 15 years and directed the school's choir. He spent 14 years as a public school music teacher and 17 years as a principal in Prince George's County.

"Our purpose and mission is not just to spread the word of God through music, but also the joy of music," Blanchard said. "We want to be able to bring an awful lot of people into this program, this church or their own church choirs. ... It gives us an opportunity to give to the community."

The choir - which performs at venues such as the Reese Fire Hall and a recent AARP meeting at Boulevard and Beyond catering hall in Westminster - aims to provide an outlet for seniors who want to get together to sing, but who don't drive at night.

During performances, singers are allowed to sit if necessary, Blanchard said.

"We're getting a lot of requests," said Billie White, 74, one of the group's original singers and a member of its steering committee. "We're going to have to pace ourselves."

The steering committee manages the performance schedule, keeps track of membership, selects the music and makes contacts with outside organizations. The choir performs from September through May.

Cathy Hartman, another of the group's original singers and a member of its steering committee, said Blanchard has helped the singers refine their sound.

"Senior voices are different. Older people warble," she said. "We're very fortunate to have a professional to help train us."

Blanchard said the voice is a muscle that has to be exercised.

"You have to use it," he said. "It's like someone who can lift 200 pounds. If you don't lift for a long time, you lose it."

He was initially reluctant to accept the directing duties when the group's founding members begged him to do so. But he said that after he attended one of their rehearsals, he heard hope in their voices and couldn't resist the offer to work with the group.

A stickler for perfection, Blanchard is mindful to strike an encouraging tone.

During last week's rehearsal, as the group sang Engelbert Humperdinck's "Prayer from `Hansel and Gretel,'" Blanchard explained why the song had been selected.

"There's a tonal quality that we're trying to live up to," he said. "We don't want to scream."

After a few notes, he stopped the choir when it seemed the members weren't following his prompts.

"Watch me," he said. "I'm trying to pick up the tempo."

During its rendition of "America the Beautiful," Blanchard encouraged the group to keep practicing at home.

"There are a lot of little things you're not getting right now," he said. "But you're getting there. I'll nitpick later."

Blanchard then prompted them to try it again for him.

"OK, ready?" he asked. "Sing!"

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