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Volunteer of the Year
July 25, 2012
Volunteer of the Year

JF&CS News Summer 2012

Marilyn OkonowEvery Monday morning eighteen people with Parkinson’s disease, along with their spouses and care partners, gather at the United Parish Church in Auburndale to sing together in the JF&CS Tremble Clefs chorus. Despite the ravages of this progressive disease, their love of music and the fun of being together create a special bond that has been strengthened by the dynamic warmth of their musical director, Marilyn Okonow.

Marilyn’s energy and support have made Tremble Clefs a safe, nurturing community and a great way to start the week. Now in her fourth year as conductor, Marilyn is this year’s recipient of the Simone Lottor Exceptional Service Award. The honor was created in 2001 by Sandy Lottor and his family in memory of his wife Simone Lottor, who for many years was a dedicated volunteer for JF&CS.

“I know that it is such a cliché when people say ‘I get more than I give’ but it is so true,” said Marilyn. “I don't treat the chorus as a group of Parkinson's patients who sing. This is a chorus of people who love to sing and happen to have Parkinson's. So while every warm-up, every song, every tempo is chosen with their challenges in mind, in the end, it is about the music. We make music together and have fun.”

Tremble ClefsTremble Clefs is a nationwide singing program for people with Parkinson’s that uses breathing, stretching and posture activities, vocal exercise, and a strong support system to address the diminishment of voice volume and clarity that can sometimes cause social isolation of people with Parkinson’s. The group ranges from mid-50s to late 80s in age, with a wide range of musical skills and training, and a variety of physical challenges. Marilyn skillfully selects evocative music, creates power point presentations of the lyrics, and uses media like YouTube videos of their favorite singers to stimulate and engage chorus members.

“Marilyn grasped immediately that our goal is not to be a fabulous performing group but to give each individual the experience of being part of a community of singers,” said Nancy Mazonson, Director, JF&CS Parkinson’s Family Support. “She is full of energy and warmth and puts her body, heart, and soul into conducting.”

Marilyn uses her musical training to find songs that are a good fit for the group, choosing melodies with a narrow vocal range, carefully selected lyrics, and strong, even rhythms. The group practices with a live accompanist, learning musically sophisticated pieces - from show tunes, novelty songs, pop, country, and jazz to songs with humor, spiritual songs, and even rap.
 
“As soon as we start singing, the energy in the room changes. People clearly use this weekly experience as a time to connect with others who are facing the same challenges. There is a strong sense of community,” said Marilyn.

During warm-ups, Marilyn reinforces some of the concepts of formal speech therapy, using vocal techniques specifically designed for people with Parkinson’s to allow them to project their voices more powerfully.

“The participants are in middle to late stages of Parkinson’s and struggle immensely. They look forward to a time every week when they don’t have to think about their challenges. The group is close and everyone supports one another. They walk out humming with smiles on their faces. Volunteering as director of the Tremble Clefs requires a minimal degree of effort on my part and I know that my efforts make a huge difference in these folks' lives,” said Marilyn.

Marilyn, who lives in Needham with her husband, Dale, and their two children, has years of professional training. After graduating from Cornell University, where she studied music and voice performance, Marilyn received a Masters in Music Education from New England Conservatory of Music. She had a successful career as a professional singer, pianist, and arranger, appearing with her quartet in hotels in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and New York. While raising her children, Marilyn was instrumental in developing a music curriculum for the Rashi School and has been a frequent cantorial soloist at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley.

Marilyn and Dale were instrumental in the inception of the JF&CS Parkinson’s Family Support program. Dale's father had Parkinson's and Dale approached JF&CS with the idea of starting a support program for care partners and all family members affected by the disease. The couple is now working to find donors in order to permanently endow this vitally important community program so that it is financially sustainable in the future.

Each week the group closes with “From Monday On” by Bing Crosby, with new lyrics to inspire the group:

From Monday on
The skies’ll look bright
Don’t tell us different
We know we're right
We're gonna start shoutin' hey hey
We’ll walk out humming every day
We’ll be happy
From Monday on!

For more information, call 781-647-JFCS (5327) or email your questions via our contact us page.

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