‘Come Sing With Us’

Music pilot program brings seniors and students together

Senior Aileen Kung (right) speaks with audience members in the 560 Music Center's Pillsbury Theatre Dec. 5. Kung was part of a group of students in the Singers' Performance Workshop who performed a special afternoon concert for memory care patients from St. Louis assisted living facilities. (Photo: Whitney Curtis/Washington University)

A Steinway Grand sounds buoyantly across the marble floors of an historic Art Deco theater. A half-dozen performers swayed gently through Gilbert & Sullivan, the lyric both comfort and joyful command:

Take heart, fair days will shine.
Take any heart — take mine!

On a cold, clear December afternoon, dozens of seniors from four St. Louis memory care centers — Brooking Park, Laclede Groves, Southview Assisted Living and Family Love Daycare Center — gathered inside the Pillsbury Theatre of Washington University’s 560 Music Center for “Come Sing With Us,” a free informal concert sponsored by the Department of Music in Arts & Sciences and local nonprofit Maturity and Its Muse.

Students from the university’s Singers’ Performance Workshop presented excepts from “The Pirates of Penzance,” “The Fantasticks” and “Chicago,” among others. Audience members laughed, applauded, and smiled in recognition.

“Music seems to touch a lot of facets of our personalities,” said Lynn Hamilton, founder of Maturity and Its Muse and a 2016 Women of Achievement honoree. “Everyone loves music, but people also have very unique and individual responses.”

“I’ve wanted to do something with WashU and music for a long time,” added Hamilton, who co-organized the event with Christine Armistead, director of vocal activities, and Jennifer Gartley, manager of public outreach and applied music. “So when Jennifer and Christine came up with the idea for this program, I jumped at the chance.”

Lynn Hamilton, founder of Maturity and Its Muse, greets the audience. Hamilton organized the concert with Christine Armistead and Jennifer Gartley in the Department of Music in Arts & Sciences. (Photo: Whitney Curtis/Washington University)
Lynn Hamilton, founder of Maturity and Its Muse, greets the audience. Hamilton organized the concert with Christine Armistead and Jennifer Gartley in the Department of Music in Arts & Sciences. (Photo: Whitney Curtis/Washington University)

“Come Sing With Us” was the first in what Hamilton, Armistead and Gartley hope will be a continuing series of events that bring together seniors and music students. A second concert is scheduled for next spring.

Like Kemper KARE, which Hamilton helped to establish at the university’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in 2012, the program is designed to engage people with early to mid-Alzheimer’s or similar dementias, along with their caregivers. Though little can be done to halt the progress of the disease, such patients nevertheless benefit by remaining active and socially engaged.

“Studies show that this kind of program can really enhance participants’ quality of life,” Hamilton said. “It gives them an opportunity to come out and interact with other people. It just puts everyone in a better frame of mind.”

At the same time, the December concert presented several of the young performers with something they’d never faced before: a real, live audience.

“Some singers in the workshop have performance experience, but a lot of them don’t,” Armistead said. “None of them are music majors. They’re engineers, biologists, marketing majors… . But they all have a passion for singing.”

Performing for the seniors “really helps us,” Armistead added. “We need an audience.”

As the sun fell lower in the winter sky, sophomore engineering major Benjamin Zev, sporting a bowler hat and patchwork blazer, seemed to capture the spirit of the afternoon.

As the audience nodded along, Zev launched into a solo from “Chicago” that was equal parts playful, charming and wryly poignant:

Cellophane, Mr. Cellophane
Should have been my name, Cellophane
‘Cause you can look right through me
Walk right by me and never know I’m there.

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