When teenager Julia Russell sings with people more than 60 years her senior, gone are the affectations and competitiveness of high school. She can sing purely for the joy of it. And the rich bass harmonies coming from the other side of the room are icing on the cake.
“I’m so used to singing with people my age, and with people who sound kind of like I do,” said Russell, a West High School senior and singer with Madison Youth Choirs.
This fall, Russell is also participating in MYC’s Intergenerational Choir at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community. The choir brings together voices separated by many decades of experience. In the soprano section, the youthful Russell sits with singers born during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.
“I think it’s interesting to blend in different ways — especially in the basses. You guys — you sound so great,” she said, turning to fellow singer Paul Gohdes, 80, after a recent rehearsal.
“It’s something we can’t have in MYC, because our vocal cords are not like that — yet. It’s really interesting, it’s a different experience, and it’s something we couldn’t get if we didn’t come here.”
The Intergenerational Choir started in January with a two-year grant from Madison Community Foundation. It consists of volunteer singers from both Capitol Lakes and MYC’s two elite high school choirs, Cantabile for girls and Ragazzi for boys.
The group has twice performed small concerts for family and friends. On Saturday evening, however, it is opening the doors to the general public for a free, one-hour concert in Capitol Lakes’ Grand Hall.
The 31-voice choir will sing a range of works, from the Navajo prayer-inspired “Now I Walk in Beauty” to the traditional Shaker song “Simple Gifts,” and music by J.S. Bach. The evening will end with “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan.
In a rehearsal last week, conductor Lisa Kjentvet had the younger vocalists sing the first verse of “Forever Young” to the older singers, who in turn sang the next verse. The song became a conversation between generations.
“It’s just a joy to see the relationship” between the teen and elder singers, said Kjentvet, education and outreach coordinator for the nonprofit Madison Youth Choirs. “Music really has that ability to build community.”
Kjentvet was inspired to found the Intergenerational Choir after learning about the Young@Heart Chorus, a performance group for people in their 70s and older in New England. Capitol Lakes seemed the perfect place to launch the Madison program because of the “vibrant culture of music” already present at the retirement community, she said.
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Kjentvet spends the first six weeks of each eight- to 10-week session of the Intergenerational Choir rehearsing with the seniors on their own. Then the younger singers, whom she refers to as “the MYC-ers,” join the “Capitol Lakers” for three combined rehearsals.
The vocal training has really strengthened the singing voices of Gohdes and his wife Dolores, 80, they said.
“Long ago and far away, I was in the high school band, the glee club and different choirs,” said Dolores Gohdes. “Singing in a group is certainly much more fun than singing with yourself. And with the young voices, they just make it that much better. We old folks sound a little creaky and croaky. And — it’s just nice to be with young people.”
“Our director gets things out of us that we didn’t know we had. She really does,” said Bernie Hebb, 81, who in high school played flute in the band and sang in the glee club, but hasn’t sung much since.
“Singing is fun. It really is,” she said. “I sing in my head, besides the voice.”
For Nora Cahill, a West High senior who has sung with MYC since sixth grade, the Intergenerational Choir offers “an opportunity to meet people who I don’t normally run into in my daily life,” she said. Plus, “I love to sing every chance I get.”
Unlike high school, where “everybody … is always so caught up about what other people think about them,” the environment at Capitol Lakes is relaxed, Russell said.
“When I come here, I think, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter.’ You can be whoever you want. You can sing how you want. You can express yourself in a way that’s already so fun to do, surrounding yourself with people who don’t care what you look like or what you sound like.”
Eli Wilson, a West High senior who has sung with Madison Youth Choirs since third grade, spends 2½ hours every Sunday rehearsing with MYC. By comparison, the 1-hour rehearsals at Capitol Lakes “go by fast. But it’s still so much fun. It’s quick and fun.”
“Singing at MYC, and singing a lot, it can get very technical, and kind of intense, and sometimes very exhausting,” said Gracie Little, a junior at West. “Here it doesn’t really matter if you sound perfect, because you sound beautiful.”
“Like Bernie said — singing is fun. And also sometimes, I know that I get very caught up in high school. It’s wonderful to come here and just sing and be around people that are much wiser, and far beyond the point of high school, and survived high school. It’s just a wonderful perspective. And you get to sing.”