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Choir of Alzheimer's patients uses the power of music to spark memory

Choir forges connection of music among Alzheimer’s patients
Choir forges connection of music among Alzheimer’s patients 04:16

ST. PAUL, Minn. — At the heart of music is the shared experience. Emily Pearl and her mother, Kaye, have been part of the Giving Voice Chorus in St. Paul since 2018. The vocalists making the three- and four-part harmonies are living with dementia.

"We have people who have the diagnosis. Then we have their care partners who they come with. Often that's a spouse or child. and then we have a third group which are volunteers," said Joey Clark, Director of the Giving Voice Chorus of St. Paul.

"It's not about artistic excellence, it's about artistic experience. And the experience that everyone brings to this choir is really important," said Eyleen Braaten, Executive Director of Giving Voice.

Kaye brings both choral and instrumental music experience.

"Mom played piano and was also first chair clarinet," Emily Pearl said.

As a child, Kaye Pearl had the ability to play by memory, a skill that came in handy when forgetting her piano sheet music before a performance at the MacPhail Center for Music.

"She was 8 or 9 years old and her mom said, 'We're not driving back.' And so she had to play the entire concert from memory," Emily Pearl said. 

Recently, Kaye Pearl's ability to vocalize has become more limited because of aphasia. But it's clear by her gestures that, although many of her memories are forgotten, those music memories are not lost. Nor is her passion for the craft.

"She might not be performing by opening her mouth and singing but I'm looking in her eyes and she is going through all the words in her head. Moving her head to the beat and when there's a cutoff, she makes a cut-off with her head. So, she's actually living the music," explained Clark.

"And if I sing the wrong thing, she will elbow me to let me know that I…," Emily Pearl said as her mother interrupted.

"Eff up," Kaye Pearl whispered with a smile. 

Together, when these 40 to 50 Giving Voice singers meet weekly for 90 minutes they are in tune, musically and emotionally.

"There's definitely a lot of love in the room," said Clark.

"When you're experiencing something musically, it also harnesses the feelings of joy and happiness. That's what I think you see when people are moved and stand up or clap or smile. It's because that music memory really brings those emotions out," said Braaten.

"It gives us that opportunity to reframe who we are together. Without this, there would be a lot of sadness," Emily Pearl said.

"Creativity is the last thing in us to die, so giving anyone a key to that creativity in their later years is just so powerful," said Clark.

After launching in 2014, Giving Voice now has five choirs in the Twin Cities Metro. The nonprofit is leading a movement to inspire more choirs like it around the country and internationally, a movement that Emily says is about creating moments through the intrinsic power of music. 

"There are moments in those songs where she might not have said a word to me that day, and she turns to look at me and says, 'I love you so much' and those moments I know we're making a difference and I know we're creating memories," Emily Pearl said.

The Giving Voice Chorus St. Paul is performing their end-of-semester concert, "A Celebration of Women in Music." It's this Sunday at the Minnesota JCC Capp Center in St. Paul. Click here for ticket information.

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