Ward Garner, a senior vice president and certified financial planner, has been assisting clients for Bill Few Associates in Ross since 1995
WASHINGTON — When retirees settle into life after work, an inevitable question arises: What kinds of commitments can still be made to friends, neighbors and organizations?
In the nation’s capital, more than 1,000 retirees have found a convincing answer: singing.
The nonprofit Encore Creativity for Older Adults chorale program is the largest in the country for people over 55, with more than 1,100 singers and 21 choral groups in the Washington metro area and more than 700 singers in five other states (two new programs will open in New York in March).
What started in 2007 as three choruses has blossomed into hundreds of singers ringing the District, belting out music from Broadway and the Great American Songbook. This year, the D.C.-area groups will combine to perform at the Kennedy Center’s concert hall the day after Christmas.
Its founder and director, Jeanne Kelly, a former classical singer, led a three-year study conducted by George Washington University that observed 150 singers older than 55. She found that participants in professionally led choral programs take fewer medications, experience less depression and make fewer visits to doctors.
“You’ve given so much of yourself, said Debbie DeLone, a retiree in Encore’s downtown Washington chorale group. “Now you’re singing, and people are listening to you. You feel like: Wow, here I am.”
Here is a look at four other retirees who have turned to singing to give their lives a new feeling, and meaning.
Howard Smith, 89
Mr. Smith is one of the oldest members of Encore. After working as a foreign service officer at the State Department for decades, he retired and moved into Goodwin House, a continuing care facility in Falls Church, Va. Even while working at the highest levels of diplomacy in Congo, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Mexico, he had a nagging impulse to sing. He remembers being a young boy watching his mother perform on stage, wanting to know how it felt to make people happy with music.
When he retired from the government, he worried that pursuing a career in music was a lost cause. Encore helped renew his enthusiasm.
“Music is life,” he said. “I know that if I keep going to rehearsals for what we’re doing this coming season, that everything will be fulfilled. It’s what I really wanted to do. I didn’t have that opportunity professionally, but I’ve had it here.”
Even after he stopped driving, he maintained a full life at Goodwin House apart from the Encore rehearsals there: as a bingo caller, as a fundraiser for holiday gifts for the staff, as a founder of a group that gathers to read plays together.
“Singing to me is the best medicine,” he said. “It makes you want to live a little longer.”
Tom Hoppin, 79
Mr. Hoppin is a sailor and member of the Annapolis area’s branch of Encore. He moved from Washington to a cottage in Shady Side, Md., after he retired as a banker and employee at a research firm that studied aging.
He has examined the ways singing improves physiological and mental health. His home on the water is small, so he uses his car and its sound system to practice his part along with CD recordings of Encore’s arrangements.
“It’s a little like going to the gym in that you’re learning how to breathe better and bend over better and stretch your muscles better,” he said. “People increase the range of their voices, start being able to hit high notes.”
Mr. Hoppin sings with former staff members of the Naval Academy and NASA, and with several widows who tell him that singing has helped them recover from loss. “We are mutually dependent on one another,” he said. “There’s a sense of reliance.”
And, he added, “There’s always an element of the spiritual side, in the sense that we’re living out of our own selves into a creative art.”
Liz Diamond, 71
“I’ve always been a bit of a ham and a bit of a showoff,” said Ms. Diamond, a former Alzheimer’s Association employee who came to Washington from Britain in 1979.
She is part of Encore’s chapter in Glen Echo, Md. Singing has helped convince her of the importance of community-building in retirement, of living a home life rich with the arts. It has also clarified to her what feels most meaningful about a life in the United States.
“Having those commitments in retirement is important,” she said.
Her choral group also allows her to make new friends. The kinds of careers specific to Washington mean they always have something to talk about.
“If you threw a stone in our chorus, somebody has written a book or done something rather important with their lives,” she said.
At home, she uses a bedroom to practice her parts for Encore.
“I have to go in there and screech my head off,” she said. “The cat leaves the room in disgust.”
Tony Tambasco, 78
Mr. Tambasco’s home study is full of texts he used as a religious studies professor at Georgetown University, where he taught for 35 years. When he joined Encore, his academic haven turned into one for music. He set up a Bose sound system that he uses to rehearse his parts.
Counting notes in the music has helped keep his mind sharp, and has brought out a new side of him.
“We’re singing a piece now that says, ‘viva la musica,'” he said. “It’s a piece that’s very melodic. I get choked up when I’m singing it sometimes. It’s hard to even sing it because I feel like I want to tear up in the middle of it.”
The music “has an effect on mind and heart,” he said, adding, “It makes for a happy life.”