Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:35 am
When Milwaukee’s Melodies & Memory Chorus first began practicing about four months ago, many of its members were shy and sang in soft tones, said choir conductor Arlene Skwierawski.
“Boy, now they are willing to sing solos,” Skwierawski said. “They’re singing in four parts. And I’m enjoying watching this whole thing. It’s a wonderful program, and I think it’s going to grow.”
Composed of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers, the choir leverages the power of music to engage memory and build confidence among those living with the debilitating disease.
Choir members will take the stage on Saturday at Milwaukee High School of the Arts for their first public performance, one that is sure to give them a big boost, said Skwierawski, whose music background includes about 30 years of directing area choirs.
Inspiration for the Melodies & Memory Chorus was born from a similar music and memory movement in New York City. In March, representatives from the Madison-based Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute, which is serving as the lead organization behind the chorus, travelled to New York to observe a choir of Alzheimer’s individuals in action.
The Helen Bader Foundation, which has funded the Melodies & Memory Chorus with a $10,000 grant, backed the trip so that directors from the WAI “could capture as much knowledge as they could and then replicate the program here in Wisconsin,” said Helen Ramon, program officer at the Milwaukee-based foundation.
After recruiting four choir conductors, including Skwierawski and international country music singer KC Williams, a native of Milwaukee, the chorus began practicing once a week at Milwaukee High School of the Arts.
While the choir started with about 10 Alzheimer’s individuals and their caregivers, it has grown to 20 members. The pilot program targets African American individuals with Alzheimer’s disease in line with the Helen Bader Foundation’s focus on spreading awareness of the disease and fighting against it, particularly in underserved communities.
“We’ve been working very heavily in minority communities to make them aware of Alzheimer’s disease,” Ramon said. “It’s really a disease that many people don’t associate themselves with, and this is a program that really is beneficial to many older people.”
The formation of the choir follows a parade of engagement activities the foundation has supported for Alzheimer’s individuals, including art projects and poetry projects.
“We are always looking for programs that will be a benefit for the individual and their family members,” Ramon said. “Most people with Alzheimer’s disease live in their communities…It’s important for them to stay engaged in activities, and we try to replicate programs or create programs that will allow people to do that.”
The Melodies & Memory Chorus’ repertoire is colored by a range of music, including Christmas songs and gospel songs that many members recall singing in church during childhood.
“That’s why they remember it,” Skwierawski said. “Some of that memory doesn’t go away.”
Skwierawski’s approach to conducting Alzheimer’s individuals supports a growing body of research that music acts as a healing agent for those with the disease, she said, as more of these chorus groups pop up around the country.
During Saturday’s performance, she hopes to draw an impressive crowd of audience members to lift the spirits and confidence of those singing.
“It’s beautiful to see how much they enjoy this, but it would be wonderful for them to feel that the audience was there for them and was clapping for them and appreciated what they were doing,” Skwierawski said.
“That’s medicine in itself,” she said.
The Melodies & Memory Chorus’ concert is free and open to the public. It is scheduled for 3 p.m. at the Milwaukee High School of the Arts, located at 2300 W. Highland Ave. in Milwaukee.