The power of music creates community

April 11th, 2013

It’s a few minutes before 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and people begin to enter Room 24 of the Lombardo Student Center. The group reconnects with friendly conversation, catching up on the week’s happenings. Energized and ready to go, the community gets down to work.

They warm up their bodies, their voices and review the material from last rehearsal.

They may look different. They may come from different backgrounds. Some are John Carroll students from different states, while others are older adults from surrounding neighborhoods. Their ages vary from 18 to 88. Yet, this intimate group of 26 people shares a common ground: music.

Penny Harris, chair of the sociology and criminology department and director of the aging studies program, and Cynthia Caporella, director of liturgical music and musical arts, formed the first intergenerational choir for college students, people with early-stage Alzheimer’s and families at John Carroll.

Harris first created the choir as part of a research project to help fight Alzheimer’s stigma, and conquer the stereotypes that come with the diagnosis. “When a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, that is how they are defined,” said Harris. “Many don’t see the person behind it – just the disease. With the diagnosis comes many misunderstandings and confusions.”

In hopes of combating these misunderstandings, Harris joined forces with Caporella to form a community on John Carroll’s campus through the healing powers of music.


Although Caporella had never done anything like this before, she jumped at the chance to implement this social justice initiative on campus. “Once I heard the idea, I was really excited about it,” said Caporella. “It was a good opportunity for [John Carroll] students and myself to work in a new environment. The process has delighted me.”

According to Harris, John Carroll students are no different than anyone else when stereotyping someone with Alzheimer’s disease. “They have a lot of misunderstandings about the disease, and one of the ways of lessening the misunderstandings is bringing people with Alzheimer’s disease and students together in an enjoyable setting, and working towards a common goal,” she said.

Freshman Catherine Calhoun described the overall experience as rewarding and enjoyable despite her initial apprehension to joining the unique group. “I didn’t know what to expect when I first entered the choir room,” said Calhoun.  “But I am so glad that I signed up. The people I have met are all friendly, and they always make me laugh. They show you this whole other view of what it is like to live with Alzheimer’s.”

Although the group is in full motion and ready for their upcoming performance on April 17 at the 23rd annual Alzheimer’s Disease Educational Event held in Donahue Auditorium, the choir faced the challenge of having a small timeframe to rehearse.

Harris first got the idea to form the choir when one of her past students from an aging studies class worked in marketing and advertising for a film called “Young at Heart.” This documentary followed an older singing group, showing how music helped them deal with the aging process in an enjoyable way.

This concept sparked an idea. Harris began the research project to form an intergenerational choir before Christmas Break by enlisting Caporella’s support, approaching the Cleveland Area Alzheimer’s Association with the idea and getting the research approved by the JCU Institutional Review Board for the protection of human subjects.

From there, the recruitment process began. Word of mouth spread, and students from John Carroll not only had to complete a vocal audition with Caporella, but were also screened by Harris for the research component. Upon completion of the process, 13 students were chosen.

The response of interested students was overwhelming. Sophomore Danielle Goddard expressed her immediate desire to join the choir once word had spread. “Service and singing are my two favorite things to do at John Carroll, so when I first received an email about the intergenerational choir, I was so excited,” said Goddard. “I had no previous experience working with adults with Alzheimer’s, so I was not exactly sure what to expect.”

The research team partnered with the Cleveland Area Alzheimer’s Association, where they drew 13 people from both the west and east sides of Cleveland. Many of the participants chosen grew up singing in their church or city choirs.

Valentine’s Day marked a milestone for the research project: day one of rehearsals. The members of the choir were buddied up to help one another, fostering an interaction between a student and someone with Alzheimer’s and their family members.

“When I was first introduced to the couple I was paired with, I was so happy,” said Goddard. “They both had the best sense of humor and made the first rehearsal so much fun.”

The first rehearsal surprised both Harris and Caporella. “I remember by the end of the first rehearsal, I had tears in my eyes,” said Harris.

Caporella added that “the blending of voices was amazing.”

Not only were the faculty members surprised by day one, but so were the students. After receiving feedback that will be used as part of the research project, Harris noted that “the students in particular were just blown away.” She added that she had a research assistant with her that day who reacted in a similar way.

“[The music] sent chills down her body,” said Harris.

Senior Maria Simone applauded the way music has transformed the group into a community. “I have learned that music has the power to put all obstacles aside and connect with those around you,” she said.

Although the future of the choir is uncertain, the group is eager to perform at the educational event on April 17 at 7 p.m., which will be free and open to the public. The event will feature five well-known songs that were carefully chosen by Caporella to fit the needs of the choir.

Harris and Caporella hope that the audience will gain delight and joy from listening to seemingly diverse people coming together to make music. “In the end,” said Harris, “it’s all about forgetting differences and understanding commonalities.”