By Cole, Kenneth
Aging Today , Vol. 29, No. 6
In 2001, my father was invited to join a barbershop chorus, the New MexiChords, by a friend who overheard him singing carols at a holiday party. Except at Christmas, Dad, who was 68 at the time, hadn't sung since college, some 47 years earlier. He auditioned, though, and was accepted into the 50-man group, whose members ranged in age from thirtysomethings to men in their late 70s.
The New MexiChords rehearsed once a week for three hours at a stretch, memorizing music and choreography. They concertized frequently. Dad found the rehearsals challenging and the performances exhilarating. After a particularly well-received performance, Dad said he felt as though he were walking on air. He noted that rehearsing and performing with the New MexiChords provided excellent aerobic, mental and physical exercise. The chorus also helped him develop new social connections that were to become important in his life.
Soon after my mom died in 2006, I witnessed one of the most profound examples of the positive impact the chorus had on my father. Fully a quarter of those who attended her memorial service were friends my father had met through choral singing. During the several years of her illness and the mourning period following her death, these friends played an important supporting role in Dad's life. His experience was similar to that of elders in the recent hit documentary Young@ Heart-even though Dad's chorus was more likely to sing "Lida Rose" from The Music Man than rock songs.
Although Dad has since retired from the New MexiChords, he's still active in his church choir and has recently taken up line dancing at his local senior center. These activities not only keep him socially engaged-he especially enjoys being one of only two men in the line dancing group-but also help him stay physically and mentally active.
Recent research has shown that artistic experiences, such as those enjoyed by my father, improve mental and physical health in older adults. In particular, the Creativity and Aging Study, a three-year controlled study supported mainly by the National Endowment for the Arts, AARP, and the National Institute of Mental Health, revealed strikingly positive differences in both the mental and physical health of the intervention group (those involved in intensive participatory art programs) compared with a control group not involved in such programs.
Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University, who led the study, believes two factors are responsible for the health benefits associated with creative-aging programs: mastery (developing new skills, appreciation and understanding) and social engagement. (See Cohen's article on page 7.)
A key aspect of the Creativity and Aging Study is that it focused on professionally led arts programs. In my field of community arts education, programs are taught or facilitated by professional teaching artists, defined as "practicing professional artists with the complementary skids and sensibilities of an educator who engage people in learning experiences in, through, and about the arts."
In my dad's case, although the New MexiChords is an amateur group, the director of the chorus is a skilled musician who trains the singers in vocal production and musical technique. Given the high quality of the chorus's performances, my dad was surprised to learn that only 30% of its members could read music. Lack of formal musical training wasn't an impediment, however: The director was skilled enough to teach chortis members to sing by ear.
Teaching artists are employed by community arts education organizations, such as community schools of the arts, education divisions of performing arts organizations and museums, and arts centers. Many of these organizations are members of my organization, the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts, the association for community arts education.
National Guild members share a common goal: to make high-quality arts education accessible to people of all ages, aptitudes and circumstances. …