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Singing to the Back Row
August 2, 2018
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Posted by Jon Federman

When Jeanne Andersen (pictured on the left) and Christine Pizer (pictured on the right) responded to a notice looking for volunteer singers last summer, they had no idea what a positive effect the experience would have on their own lives. Singers with the Cambridge Community Chorus, the two women saw a notice from the JF&CS Tremble Clefs, a choral group designed to help strengthen the voices of people with Parkinson’s disease, looking for volunteer singers to join the group. Intrigued, they contacted Nancy Mazonson, Director of JF&CS Charlotte & Richard Okonow Parkinson's Family Support, and asked if they could both participate. Although both women were familiar with JF&CS, neither one had heard of the Tremble Clefs.

When the Tremble Clefs returned from summer break in September, Jeanne and Christine became the group’s newest additions. “We became friends through music and it’s wonderful to share this volunteering opportunity as part of our friendship,” says Jeanne. “Our primary reason for going every Monday is that we simply sing together. We also help greet people, pass out name tags, and on break, we assist with refreshments. But the primary thing is just singing. The therapeutic value of the Tremble Clef’s singing is boosted by having additional voices that encourage [the singers] to sing louder.”

Although Jeanne did not have any personal connection to Parkinson’s disease before volunteering with The Tremble Clefs, she has had a long history working with people with disabilities, having worked in special education and in hospitals. Her widest exposure to people with disabilities or illness was as a hospital chaplain. Christine, who has a family member with Parkinson’s disease, is a nurse. Together, Jeanne and Christine explain that they have had exposure to people with various degrees of medical infirmity. “We’re both very comfortable and patient and creative in dealing with people with varying disorders,” Christine remarks. “Because we’ve both worked in the field, we know if someone needs to slow down, to be patient with people.”

Both Christine and Jeanne find themselves inspired by the upbeat vibes of the group. “I’ve learned about courage through the individuals who have [Parkinson’s disease] and the way they address it is very inspiring to me,” says Christine. “They alter the words of songs we know in very humorous ways. The way they acknowledge Parkinson’s disease in these songs is just delightful. It’s very impressive.”

“It’s a surprisingly joyful group,” Jeanne remarks. People make humorous comments and make each other laugh. It’s a remarkable group of people who share a love of music and humor and are very courageous. It’s a wonderful way to get over any awkwardness.”

Both singers are also inspired by the volunteer conductor of the group, Marilyn Okonow. Okonow, a professional musician, has a “very upbeat and positive attitude. It’s not a sing-along. It’s truly a therapeutic group. She works hard to improve and offer new ways to expand voices and achieve breath control,” explains Jeanne. “The professional accompanist, Joe Reid, is also unbelievable. Together, they provide a level of respectfulness to the group. They set the tone. The quality of those two people shows the level of respect that JF&CS has for the group.”

Christine also notes that most of the participants are senior citizens and that many seniors have a jaded idea about sing-alongs in skilled nursing facilities. “It’s nothing like that,” she exclaims. “Marilyn gets everyone to ‘sing to the back row.’ That practice is important therapeutically.”

Asked how the Tremble Clefs experience has affected them personally, Jeanne and Christine respond favorably. “Every time I leave, I feel better. I feel lifted,” confirms Christine. I’m moved by the individuals and the caregivers and family members who join in when they can. Volunteering here takes me out of myself in a very positive way.”

“There are very few opportunities for small groups to interact with each other – people who are not friends but just community members who are just being their authentic selves,” adds Jeanne. “In Parkinson’s [disease], they talk about ‘the mask’ where you lose the ability to make facial expressions. No one wears the mask there. They’re confident about who they are and it’s a unique experience. The joy in this group is infectious.”

“One of the participants even calls us ‘The Sparkplugs,’ Jeanne reveals, “Because he feels that we inspire them to get going and sing even louder. We can’t wait for the group to return in the fall.”

 “People make friendships there,” Christine explains. “It’s a fun way to learn about ways to cope, to get out of the house, to make friends. If someone in your family has Parkinson’s disease, this is the place to go.”
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