Borrowing from Billy Joel, “There’s a new band in town, but you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine.” For that, you need to head to D.C.’s Church of the Epiphany, where the new Encore Rocks Glen Echo choral group will perform classic rock and oldies with Encore Rocks DC and a live band on May 5. Or, to the Glen Echo Bumper Car Pavilion, where the group will sing with Encore Chorale Glen Echo on June 9.
Since March 2, 43 singers, ages 55 and older, have been rocking rehearsals at Glen Echo Park under the direction of Jeffrey Dokken, who also conducts Encore Rocks DC and the more traditional Alexandria and Glen Echo Encore Chorales.
“Musical theater and rock and roll are my passions,” Dokken said. As music director and conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Northern Virginia and artistic director of the Symphony Orchestra of Northern Virginia Chorale, most of Dokken’s professional life involves classical music. “I’ve always been interested in the correlation between classical and rock music,” he said. “It’s nice to be doing rock and roll.”
The Encore Rocks’ three- and four-part choral repertoire of songs currently includes material from the ‘50s through the early ‘70s, but the groups will draw from the late ‘40s up until today for future performances. “The challenge is to pick music that appeals across our age range,” Dokken said. “Rock music is very different for a 65-year-old and a 90-year-old.” At a recent rehearsal, he played a Beach Boys tune just for fun. Afterwards, a 92-year-old singer told Dokken that she liked the song, but had never before heard it.
Encore Rocks challenges singers with the highest quality music and arrangements, Dokken said, but the groups draw singers with a variety of musical backgrounds. Encore Rocks Glen Echo is affiliated with the Washington Conservatory of Music and many of the new group’s members have sung with Encore Chorale Glen Echo. “They have a lot of experience working with me and singing with each other,” Dokken said. Encore Rocks DC, formed in January of this year, attracted many new singers, some of whom had never performed. “It’s very exciting,” Dokken said. “I get to see the reaction from my singers as they are learning and growing, enjoying.”
Encore Rocks is an offshoot of the well-established Encore Chorales that perform more traditional choral music in five or six parts. “There are 15 Encore Chorales across the D.C. area,” said Jeanne Kelly, Encore’s founder and artistic director. All groups operate under the Encore Creativity for Older Adults umbrella, which now includes affiliate chorales in California, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“Encore is growing very quickly,” said Kelly. “Aging adults are looking for excellence, for fun, to sharpen their mental and physical abilities, and for the social experience. … In the choral setting, you make new friends and become part of the team. They’re singing and having a blast.”
It all started in September 2001 when the late Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University, asked Kelly to be part of a study, “The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on the Physical Health, Mental Health and Social Functioning of Older Adults.” At the time, Kelly was director at the Levine School of Music’s Arlington campus and conductor of the Senior Singers’ Chorale there. For the study, she formed two additional choral groups of older adult singers, ages 65 and older–Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads and Arlington County Lee Center–and quickly found herself directing more than 120 singers.
The study ran for four years. “We found that their morale went sky high,” Kelly said. “This was a great finding. These older adults wanted to come to chorus. They just loved it.” The study also found that singers visited their doctors less frequently and reported needing less medication.
In 2007, Kelly decided to leave Levine School of Music and form the nonprofit Encore Creativity for Older Adults. She said she founded Encore because “older adults were not being challenged enough. Older adults have a lot to give, and they want to be challenged, they want to give back to the community.”
To challenge her singers, Kelly hired professional conductors and made sure that her groups performed in only the best venues like the Kennedy Center. By 2008, Encore had seven performing groups.
Support has been part of Encore’s successful composition since the beginning. Encore groups are open to seasoned and new singers, ages 55 and older, without audition. “As we get older, our voices age. Some develop a wobble or are not as high,” Kelly explained. “Sometimes lifelong singers all of the sudden don’t make chorus. That’s devastating to a person for whom singing has been a way of life.
“I like to say, ‘As long as you have a brain and breadth, you can sing,’” she said.
And they do. The 15 Encore Chorales and two Encore Rocks groups are more than 950 singers strong. Additional affiliates across the country involve even more older adults.
“Singing is a big social affair,” Kelly said, with singers arriving early to visit with one another. “As you get older, you lose friends and loved ones and life can get lonely. Encore is a way for people to connect with others who share their interest in music.”
Encore Rocks formed because many Baby Boomers love rock and roll. “We got a few asks,” Kelly said. “They wanted all rock and roll. We decided to give it a try, and it has been a huge success.”
Most Encore Chorale rehearsals are during the day, but Encore Rocks rehearsals are in the evening to accommodate the younger Baby Boomers that are still working. A six-week Encore Rocks pilot program will be offered at Anne Arundel Community College in June, and the Annapolis group will debut this September. “There has been a huge call for an Encore Rocks in Northern Virginia,” Dokken said, adding that Encore Rocks may soon be bigger than Encore Chorale.
For its debut performance, Encore Rocks Glen Echo joins Encore Rocks DC for “Let’s Rock,” featuring Rock classics like “Bridge over Troubled Water” and “Stairway to Heaven,” as well as a medley of rock and roll “oldies” and hits by Elvis and Frankie Valli. The free performance takes place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 5, at the Church of the Epiphany, 1317 G St., NW, Washington, D.C. Encore Rocks Glen Echo also performs with Encore Chorale Glen Echo at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 9, in the Glen Echo Bumper Car Pavilion.
For more information on performances or joining Encore, visit www.encorecreativity.org or call 301-2615747.