The Young@Heart Chorus is promising “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and considering the times, it can’t come too soon. The Northampton-based chorus, the subject of Fox Searchlight’s 2008 hit documentary “Young@Heart,” recently released the Sam Cooke cover as a teaser for the group’s upcoming “Miss You” album and Oct. 3 virtual release party and benefit concert. Both ventures are ambitious undertakings given pandemic restrictions. But also consider that the chorus members range in age from 77 to 92, a testament to aging with grace and purpose.
The group also exemplifies the enduring power of music, especially communal singing, one of the best feel-good anti-aging endeavors around. “And singing new songs works the brain,” said Bob Cilman, the chorus’s 67-year-old director. “Learning something new in your 90s is kind of great exercise. And singing and making music with a top-notch band is a real treat. It’s almost impossible for me not to sing along while I’m conducting.”
Cilman founded the chorus in 1982 at a Western Massachusetts elderly housing project as an initiative to help aging residents pass the time with joyful song instead of hours of inactivity. Rather quickly, “passing the time” turned into a vibrant musical pursuit that epitomizes the philosophy that age, race, ethnicity, and class need not be a barrier to powerful music-making. And along the way, this dedication has resulted in numerous television and theatrical appearances plus more than 55 tours, from across the US and Europe to New Zealand and Japan. In 2014, the group launched the groundbreaking PrisonVision program, “making music with, instead of for, the incarcerated” at Hampshire County Jail & House of Corrections in Northampton and the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee. The nonprofit chorus, whose advisory board includes rock legends such as David Byrne and Jorma Kaukonen, also has released several recordings. “Miss You” will be its fourth full-length album.
Young@ Heart’s rock-oriented repertoire, which ranges from Rolling Stones classics to rap, is crafted as a way to connect and create shared musical experiences with a variety of communities and age groups. The chorus rehearses twice a week, a process that quickly shifted to virtual when the pandemic hit — but not without challenges. While all the chorus members had the technology for Zoom, few knew how to use it. But within two weeks members of the group were recording themselves on their phones and computers, a sound engineer was blending the clips, and a new song was ready to air. The virtual process lets even those singers who had not been attending live rehearsals participate, and it facilitates collaboration with organizations far away, like the Chicago Children’s Choir.
The virtual show, promising guest appearances by Byrne and other celebrity fans, has a variety of ticket levels and auction items, but fans can also attend free. Cilman said the goal is to make the work accessible to all. “It will be amazing to present [the live virtual benefit] not just for those locally but for everybody,” Cilman said. “We’re getting people registered from all over the world.”
For the new album, Young@Heart has a professional band of 10 backing its 24 singers. While some of the choristers had prior professional or amateur performing experience, others had never stepped onto a stage before the age of 80. “It’s not that people have great voices, though some do,” Cilman said. “It’s a lot about what they project onstage and how they project it.”
That may help account for the chorus’s multigenerational appeal. Hearing contemporary songs reinterpreted by an older generation brings a different resonance to the lyrics. The 2013 video of late chorister Fred Knittle gracefully soloing while wearing a nasal cannula on a version of Coldplay’s “Fix You” is unbelievably poignant. “We get rid of the original quickly,” Cilman said. “It’s really about what the song has to say and who can deliver it in an interesting way. Then I’m always surprised it goes somewhere I didn’t quite expect. I think that’s what makes Young@Heart interesting.”
The chorus is also a lifeline for its members. Cilman thinks it has a “monumental impact” on participants, citing two recently deceased performers who “fought tooth and nail to stay in the group till the very end.”
Singer John Rinehart, the soloist on the new single, has been a member for 10 years, since shortly after his retirement. “When I was working, work was practically my life besides my family and going to church on Sundays,” said the former registered nurse. “After I retired, I told my wife, ‘You might as well get my casket ready cause I’m gonna be dead in six months,’ because I’m a person who likes to keep busy. After I joined the group, the rest is history. It keeps me busy, keeps me focused, disciplined, learning new things. And the social aspect is terrific. … I believe music keeps you young.”
No argument there.
To see Young@Heart’s rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come” go to https://youtu.be/9wR-WrLHcrk
To register for the Oct. 3 event go to www.youngatheartchorus.com.
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.