“Use what talents you possess; The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.”
Henry Van Dyke
As Van Dyke’s quote above implies, I believe many people let fear or doubt keep them from recognizing their own inherent talents and gifts. As Co-Founder of MacPhail Music for Life™ and Artistic Director of Giving Voice, I am witness to the physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual benefits that making music and singing together can provide for all as we age. Everyone can sing their whole life long if they choose to. I’ve seen creativity increase with age, if opportunities are offered for continued artistic expression. I’ve been a teaching artist at MacPhail Center for Music for almost 25 years. It has been, and continues to be, an honor to teach, encourage, assist, and hopefully inspire students to “find their voice.” I’m also fortunate that MacPhail supports all of their teaching artists to be courageous in following their own passion of self-discovery, should they choose to take a new musical direction or path in their careers.
I am grateful that MacPhail has supported and continues to support and celebrate two important personal journeys to helping me “find my voice.” The first journey occurred when MacPhail engaged me to teach a composition residency, working with high school students in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. I had begun composing a decade earlier, but with no formal training in music composition. I wrote what I heard, and loved the unique and excited freedom I felt. I never got stuck wondering whether someone else would approve or even like what I was writing. I liked it. Yet, I believed then that, since I hadn’t studied composition, I couldn’t call myself a composer. However, during that residency I “found my voice,” recognizing that the creative process is unique to each individual. The students and I learned from each other as we exchanged ideas.
The “There is no wrong in this room” philosophy was happening as we improvised and played together. We recorded, notated, and documented our musical results, and celebrated together by playing our new creative works for each other.
It was a liberating experience, which gave me the courage to finally accept that a label or title or formal training isn’t what’s important. What is important is to continue to be open to “finding your own voice.”
The second journey to “find my voice” came in 2005, after I guest conducted a small chorus of older adult residents from Meadow Woods Assisted Living in Bloomington, Minnesota. The chaplain who invited me was also one of my private MacPhail voice students who knew I had a passion for older adults. She asked me to please work with them to “loosen and shake them up!” We did just that, and as a result, the Housing Manager asked me if she could work with MacPhail, so that I could begin teaching weekly music classes to all of their residents. This was the beginning of what is now MacPhail Music for Life™, and at age 54, I knew I had “found my voice.” I was relentless in my drive, and was passionate that MacPhail commit long-term resources, research, and personnel to offer professional music opportunities to older adults at both senior retirement communities and on-site at MacPhail. I immersed myself in research and became involved in the Creative Aging movement which was happening across the country. It is inspiring for me to now see the inclusion and successful growth of MMFL™ within “MacPhail’s Learning Across the Lifespan” chart.
MacPhail and MMFL™ began a special relationship—a “strategic alliance”—in 2014, with Giving Voice Initiative. Co-founders of GVI, Mary Lenard and Marge Ostroushko, truly “found their voices” when they began working together to create a new and unique model of community chorus for those with dementia. At its inception, everyone involved agreed that the chorus be named Giving Voice. “Giving Voice believes in the power of music to help people with Alzheimer’s to live well. Through singing together as a chorus, we can build community and develop friendships, reducing the social isolation that can occur with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis,” from Giving Voice Initiative.
With my continued work as Co-Founder, Senior Teaching Artist of MMFL™ and Artistic Director of Giving Voice, I am experiencing what I believe are my “greatest years.”
The headings below are rehearsal components and cues I use in my standard Giving Voice weekly session plan. I include a personal note relating to each component.
“Giving Voice March”
We begin each weekly session by singing the “Giving Voice March,” which is the “Mickey Mouse Club March” set to original lyrics. Singers hear the piano intro and our brains are triggered: we know what to expect. It’s time for all to sing, “Who’s the chorus we all love that’s made for you and me.” This has become our Giving Voice theme song. There is no talking nor warmups prior to this; they happen afterwards. Everyone greets each other with song. We feel happy to be in a familiar and comfortable setting with friends who share common interests, and celebrate the joy of singing together. Repetition is a key learning tool and having the theme song begin our sessions works successfully for us.
My Mama woke me up each morning singing, “You Are My Sunshine.” Mama (piano) and Daddy’s (tenor sax) dance band began decades of performances with their beautiful theme song, “Tenderly.” This song remains a theme song that our family plays and sings when we’re together. We even recorded a new version at Skywalker Sound in 2017, with our “family band.” I was on piano and vocals, my husband produced and played bass. Our nephew was on guitar, great nephew on drum set, niece and great niece on vocals, and another great niece on flute. I am eternally grateful to my parents for sharing their love of music with me. They gave me opportunities and life experiences enabling me to be who I am today. To this day “Tenderly” remains “our song.”
“There is No Wrong in This Room”
Whether teaching private voice, conducting a chorus, or teaching a MacPhail Music for Life™ class, it is a priority that I make each individual feel welcome, important, respected, and safe. The need for this is magnified even more when it relates to working with those diagnosed with dementia. My goal is to provide tools for success, so that each singer will know and believe that we will celebrate together the many things that they CAN do. The word “can’t” won’t be a part of our conversations. I have had years of experience working with older adults in MMFL™, yet only some of them had a type of dementia.
It wasn’t until 2014, when I began my work with Giving Voice, did I begin targeted work with a chorus whose design and mission was specifically for those with dementia, their care partners, and community volunteers. Social settings and conversation can prove uncomfortable, stressful, or even frightening for someone with dementia. During our first rehearsals I remember saying two phrases which have become “mantras” for Giving Voice, and now also with other Giving Voice model choruses.
I said, “If the words don’t come, don’t worry, we’ll sing them.” And the phrase we now use with the Singers and their family and friends is: “There is no wrong in this room.”
At most rehearsals someone will say this phrase. We all nod, smile, or pat each other reassuringly on the shoulder. This phrase is freeing and gives permission to all just to be themselves and nothing more.
Mama was my role model and “a natural” in creating a comfortable, supportive, and loving environment. I learned through observation how people responded to her gentle kindness. As a young girl I remember asking her, “Mama, so many people love you. How can you love ’em all back?” She said, “Honey, God gives you such a big supply that you’ll never run out.”
“Don’t worry if it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear.
Just sing, sing a song.” Joe Raposo
Too many times I’ve heard: “I can’t sing. My music teacher told me to just mouth the words.” Or “I’m just here with my wife who sings. I can’t read music so you probably don’t want me.” I smile a familiar smile and respond, “Thank you for sharing. Hearing that breaks my heart, but you know what? At least a half-dozen or more of our Singers have told me a similar story and listen to how great we all sound!” And it’s true! Sadly, I imagine that many music educators and conductors have heard this same sad tale before as well. I believe that communities need to sing together and that everyone be invited to join. As Bill Staines reminds us, “All God’s creatures got a place in the choir.” Singing and making music together nurtures our individual and collective souls. It creates pride in ourselves and the community by “finding our voices” and building a “new voice together.” It offers opportunities for greater love and understanding towards one another.
Departure from perfection is a goal that I believe is freeing and can allow one to stay in the moment. I believe in “getting your britches dirty” and not trying to sing each note perfectly. You can’t be worried about a certain musical passage while being in the moment. A chorus is a wonderful place to be because you have people all around you to lift you up!
The Singers teach me by example: “To live in the moment.” They live by this phrase. I had heard it before, of course, but I don’t think I fully understood its true meaning. This phrase now resonates deeply within me and I will always be grateful to my singing friends for this gift. I remind myself of this affirmation each day.
Singers keep their music, lyrics, and other Giving Voice-related materials in their own personal three-ring binders. We try to sing five binder songs at each rehearsal from the ten song per semester concert repertoire.
Tools for Success:
Use of Repetition: I keep the same session structure and component headings for each weekly session. It establishes a routine of both comfort and of expectation. Of course, the content within each component will vary.
Part Tracks: Part-prominent guide track learning recordings are created for all binder songs for Sopranos, Altos, and Men. The Singers are dedicated learners as they listen to these recordings at home, or on their phones, computers, or in their cars!
Modifications: All singers have both the printed music and the lyrics-only in their binders. The lyrics-only pages correspond to the rehearsal numbers or letters of the printed music. We sing a combination of SAB, 3-part, and 2-part music. We purchase published choral music enough for each singer. But certain adaptations and modifications are made to make the music more accessible for Giving Voice. One example is: Instead of dealing with repeat signs we will add pages to the score so that the Singers can read the music as if it were a book. It is confusing for many of the Singers to go back and forth within the score. We might also choose to enlarge an octavo score to 8.5 x 11, which is easier for the Singers to read and hold. Some Singers will use music stands to hold their binders. These kinds of modifications are also applicable with an older adult chorus. For a more detailed and thorough look at my Giving Voice Session outline and ways of adapting and modifying the music for a dementia friendly chorus, please visit https://givingvoicechorus.org/for-choral-leaders/initial-assessment-planning/’
Importance of Personal Investment: Singers are involved in choosing a theme for the semester. They contribute suggestions for songs, and volunteer to be announcers prior to each song that we sing at our concerts. Audiences love hearing these personalized story intros as much as they enjoy the music!
“Music in Me/Getting to Know You”
Half way through rehearsal the music stops and we listen to each other’s stories. For about five minutes, Singers share how music has touched their lives, or about their family, hobbies, or an important life event. Many will share a “special song” that has personal meaning. Hearing each other’s stories is important to all of the singers. Stories, spoken or sung, are integral to share with others as we age. My Mama was the best storyteller ever! She was funny and was always telling stories. She loved making people laugh. Now, we, her family, have those treasured stories to share. For example, during my “Music in Me” time, I played a recording of “Tenderly” first by Mama and Daddy’s band from 1953. Then I played the more recent recording of “Tenderly” from the 2017 recording by our “family band.”
“Move ’n’ Groove”
We dance each week for about five minutes, either standing or sitting. Singers dance freely or sometimes a Volunteer offers to lead the chorus in a simple movement routine. Playing familiar recorded music presents a different auditory sensation, and can also trigger happy memories by playing the original recording artist/artists. Within our files, we have a reference form entitled “Singer Profile.” One of the questions we request our Singers to include on this form is to list their one “special song” and also their favorite songs, artists and preferred musical styles. If one of the Singers chooses the song selection for Move ’n’ Groove we acknowledge and thank them before the music begins. Giving Voice also enjoys singing familiar songs while adding simple movements. By repeating these songs each week they can be memorized and become a “practice initiative,” a term I use to describe a fun musical activity that our Singers can do independently. Singing while adding simple movement, becomes a kinesthetic experience. Kinesthetic learning encourages physical activity; bolsters cognitive, social, and emotional development; enhances the brain’s capacity to retain information; and develops not only one’s individual capacities and strengths, but also one’s self-confidence as well.
I found out only recently that my Mama played piano each week for the local dance studio, in exchange for my sister and me to have dance lessons.
Our pianist plays the opening intro to Lalo Schifrin’s “Mission Impossible” theme. This music cues the Singers to be prepared to hear their weekly assignment of songs to work on for the following week, which we call “Mission Possible.” Giving Voice Singers are dedicated and serious about their commitment to Giving Voice. They want to be in a chorus that isn’t just a “Singalong” experience. Giving Voice is a music community. The Singers are treated as we would treat respected professionals who want to work hard and be the best that they can be. They expect and want assignments to learn their music. I might be “driving the bus,” but they are really doing the driving, because they let me know how fast or slow to go, or if the road gets too bumpy, or if we’re approaching a stop sign or red light. I know when the light is green because they begin singing together with great gusto!
Taking our cue from the familiar piano intro, we know that our rehearsal has come to an end. We sing our traditional closing song, “Happy Trails.”
This is a familiar song for many of the Singers who grew up watching TV with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and listening to them sing their closing song that was composed by Dale. As we all sing together, the Singers shake hands, bump fists, give a “good job” reassuring pat on the shoulder, and wave to each other: “Till we meet again.”
A 3-minute Feature about Dee Meisner, singer/pianist, now in her late 80s and an active member of Giving Voice, who sings with her daughter-in-law, Judy. Dee will inspire and amaze you as she shares the power of music throughout her life:
“Why We Sing,” Mayo Clinic Conference: “Brain Health and Dementia,” a 90-minute workshop featuring Jeanie Brindley-Barnett, Suzy Johnson (Artistic Director of Resounding Voices chorus) and Jodi Melius (RN Study Coordinator, Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, Mayo Clinic):
Jeanie is Co-Founder and Senior Teaching Artist of MacPhail Music for Life™, a pioneering music program for adults 55+ at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. She established the original MMFL™ community partnership was in 2005 at Meadow Woods Assisted Living, Martin Luther Campus, Bloomington, MN, managed by Ebenezer Senior Living. Currently, there are over 35 MMFL™ community partnerships throughout the Twin Cities area, led by over a dozen specially-trained MacPhail teaching artists and music therapists. There are also both MMFL™ on-site and online individual instruction and group classes.
Jeanie is also Artistic Director of Giving Voice, a chorus created for those with dementia, their care partners, and community volunteers. In 2014, MacPhail Center for Music formed a strategic alliance with Giving Voice Initiative. Jeanie then created the artistic content for the “Giving Voice Toolkit,” a free online guidebook for those interested in forming their own dementia-friendly choruses or older adult community choruses.
There are over 50 choruses throughout the US inspired based the Giving Voice model. Currently, Jeanie conducts both the founding Minneapolis chorus, the online Virtual chorus, and mentors music directors of their own Giving Voice model choruses.
She launched the premiere MMFL™ older adult “Sing for Life” chorus in 2009 at Friendship Village of Bloomington retirement community where Stuart MacPhail resided. Stuart was the son of William S. MacPhail, founder of MacPhail Center for Music. At age 83, Stuart reached out to Jeanie for voice lessons to get his singing voice back into shape. He felt that his “pipes had gotten a little rusty.”
Stuart invited a “few” of his friends to join him for his first voice session, and 75 enthusiastic lifelong learners joined him to “Speak Better! Sing Better! Feel Better!”
The “Sing for Life” chorus was born and Jeanie continued as Music Director through 2019.
Jeanie was Music Director of “LeagueAires” women’s chorus, which became the first MMFL™ community chorus partnership. Her leadership of LeagueAires was 2006-2016.
From 1999-2011 Jeanie was a member of the voice faculty at MacPhail.
She is a respected leader in the field of Arts and Aging, and is known for her work as a presenter, keynote speaker, teaching artist, mentor, consultant, and curriculum specialist. Jeanie’s work has been recognized by the American Choral Directors Association, Chorus America, Minnesota State Arts Board, National Guild for Community Arts Organizations, Aroha Philanthropies (now E.A. Michelson Philanthropy), Leading Age both Minnesota and National, National Center for Creative Aging, Artsage, Care Providers Annual Expo, and Minnesota Statewide Activities Professionals.
2022: Presenter for Minnesota Gerontology Association annual Conference, “Emerging Voices”
2021: Presenter for Mayo Clinic Lifestream Virtual Conference, “Brain Health and Dementia”
2020: Commentator and Composer in “More Than Just the Music,” an award winning documentary produced by Prairie Public Television, Fargo, ND.
2019: Artistic Director and Conductor of Giving Voice in Twin Cities Public Television’s Upper Midwest Regional Emmy award-winning documentary “Love Never Forgets,” which was also a special feature on CBS national Morning News.
2019: Featured artist in the book by Ann Basting, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, entitled Creative Care: A Revolutionary Approach to Dementia and Elder Care.
2018: Facilitator and Artistic Director of a community residency collaboration, “Healing and Hope Through Song,” a collaboration between the American Composers Forum, MacPhail Center for Music, and Giving Voice, resulting in the original song cycle, “Love Never Forgets,” premiered at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul.
2018: Awarded the national Chorus America ASCAP/Alice Parker Award on behalf of Giving Voice. This award recognizes a chorus for programming of significant recently- composed music.
As a Composer
Jeanie’s song cycle “Butterfly Songs” is a setting of poems by children imprisoned in Terezín concentration camp, from the highly acclaimed book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, published by Schocken Books. Her “Butterfly Songs” was the featured work at the Walker Art Center music series, at both the Minnesota Orchestra’s “Entartete Musik” Series, and in Prague at the annual “Music Festival of 20th-Century Music” held at the Rudolfinum, home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
Performances and commissions include: Angelica Cantanti, Bel Canto Voices, Calliope, Minneapolis Artists Ensemble, Minnesota Orchestra’s KinderKonzerts Young People’s Concerts, One Voice Mixed Chorus, St. Paul Civic Orchestra, Twin Cities Women’s Chorus, Valley Chamber Singers, and VocalEssence.
Education and Professional Highlights
Jeanie received her Bachelor’s degree in Music Education, and her Master’s in Vocal Performance from Florida State University. As a Rotary International Fellow, she studied and performed for two years at the London Opera Center. She received a two-year apprenticeship with the Minnesota Opera Studio Program, performed for two seasons with the chorus of the San Francisco Opera, and was a professional teaching roster artist with the Minnesota and North Dakota State Arts Boards, the Emergency School Aid Act Program, and Young Audiences of Minnesota.