It had been five years since Alice Williams last sang in a choir, and rehearsing with the new Salt Lake Encore Chorale reminded her what she's been missing.
"It makes me grin inside and out," Williams said after the first rehearsal Thursday.
Unlike other choruses, the Salt Lake Encore Chorale will be for older adults, those 55 and up a population of singers who are often dropped from community choirs when age robs them of vocal flexibility, volume or the ability to stand for long periods.
Affiliated with a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that is expanding nationally, Encore Chorale will meet every Thursday afternoon at Salt Lake Community College's South City campus.
Conductor Mary Lou Prince was thrilled with the turnout for the first rehearsal, although she was short on bass and tenor voices. Fourteen women and one man showed up and gamely learned songs from George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim as well as the Quaker song "Simple Gifts."
"You know, we're starting to sound good already!" Prince told her choristers after the first song.
The choir is part of a growing movement to engage elders in creative, participatory activities.
Jeanne Kelly, the founder of the nonprofit Encore Creativity for Older Adults, helped do National Endowment for the Arts research at George Washington University that found striking benefits for seniors who take part in choruses and other creative community endeavors.
Some 150 seniors who were part of intensive cultural programs had better health, fewer doctor visits and less medication use than 150 seniors who did not.
They also experienced mental health benefits and were more involved in other activities.
"It was a huge success," Kelly said. Her singers had higher morale and less depression than the control group, she said. "That study went on three years and just got better and better. So after that, I left my job and started Encore," she said.
Encore Chorale has 13 choruses in the Washington and Baltimore areas, and another in Hudson, Ohio. In addition to Salt Lake, there are new Encore Chorales in Reading, Pa., and Sarasota, Fla.
Kelly said the chorales have three key missions: artistic excellence, physical and mental benefits, and, importantly, social benefits.
"I started this because I thought older adults aren't being challenged enough," said Kelly, whose choruses perform in such venues as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
She found it sad that many choirs don't want senior singers.
"I thought that was just horrible to take someone who has sung all their life and say, 'Sorry, you can't sing anymore.'â "
Kelly now has singers aged 55 to 97, although she has had choristers as old as 104.
"As long as they can breathe and speak, they can sing."
Prince learned of Encore Chorale a year ago, about the time she moved to the Salt Lake Valley from the Tucson, Ariz., area.
A graduate of Brigham Young University with bachelor's and master's degrees in music composition, Prince has 35 years of experience as a conductor, composer and music educator.
In Arizona, she started two choirs for older adults. That experience taught her the value of such choirs.
The choirs often give elders a sense of purpose and community, she said.
"I had many, many singers in both groups tell me they lived from Friday to Friday, rehearsal to rehearsal," she said.
"I really was amazed to see how people came to life who had been kind of giving up on life."
At Thursday's 90-minute rehearsal, Prince pushed the singers to learn their parts rather than just sing along with the melody.
"It's so easy to get carried away with these melodies," she said as the singers took on "I've Never Been in Love Before," from the show "Guys and Dolls."
John Bennett, director of Salt Lake City's Tenth East Senior Center, is a professionally trained pianist and the accompanist for the choir.
Bennett said he sees real potential among seniors, given that choral music is big along the Wasatch Front.
But the Encore Chorale will not perform at senior centers, where musicians generally provide background music rather than concerts.
"That's not what we're about," said Prince. "We're not doing sing-alongs."
Williams and the neighbor who recruited her for the Encore Chorale, Rosine Oliver, were thrilled with the songs Prince chose, and the challenge of the four-part singing.
"It's lots of fun," Oliver said.
"The whole is so much more than the sum of its parts," said Williams.
Kelly, the founder of Encore Creativity, said choral music often is seen as "a young person's game."
"Encore is bringing to light that this is a lifetime endeavor," she said. "Singing is the way you live life."
Salt Lake Encore Chorale
The Salt Lake Encore Chorale meets Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the Annex Building at Salt Lake Community College's South City Campus, 1610 S. 250 East, Salt Lake City. There is no charge for the first and second rehearsals, but the 15-week session costs $145, which pays for the conductor and accompanist.
Information is available at 520-400-0831 or online at email@example.com.