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U. of I. music student leads choral group of persons with disabilities

Chorus
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Photo by Ira Shanfeld
Joyful Noise, a group of singers with developmental disabilities led by University of Illinois music student Allison Fromm, is based in Cherry Hill, N.J. Fromm's sister is second from the left.

2/18/2008

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor
217-333-5491; melissa@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Vocalists were in abundance in Connecticut’s capital city last week as the Eastern Division of the American Choral Directors Association met in Hartford for its annual convention.

But among the choruses making melodious music at the convention, few could claim a more expressive, more genuine sound than Joyful Noise, a group of singers with developmental disabilities led by University of Illinois music student Allison Fromm. The group is based in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Fromm, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Yale and Boston universities, respectively, is working on a doctorate in choral conducting at Illinois. She founded Joyful Noise in 2000 because she hoped it would not only be a welcome diversion for her own developmentally challenged younger sister, Elizabeth, but also something fun the siblings could do together.

“I have always loved singing in a chorus, and my sister also has loved singing since she was a year old,” Fromm said. “I thought it would be a wonderful thing for her to share her love of singing communally with her friends. So I asked her.”

Alison Fromm
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Ira Shanfeld
“What’s unique about these singers is they have no fear,” said Allison Fromm, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Yale and Boston universities, respectively, and is working on a doctorate in choral conducting at Illinois. “They’re very expressive and eager to connect with audiences."

When Elizabeth responded enthusiastically to the idea, the sisters approached the staff at Bancroft NeuroHealth, which operates the residential facility where Elizabeth lives. After Bancroft agreed to host the chorus, she announced the first rehearsal, and said she would be encouraged if at least eight people showed up.

“We had 15 at that first meeting,” she said, noting that in the eight years since she’s directed the group – traveling about twice a month from Illinois to New Jersey for rehearsals – its membership has ebbed and flowed slightly, but typically averages about 30.

“We still have a little room to grow,” she said.

Nearly half of the chorus’s current 32 members – plus an entourage of caregivers and staff members from Bancroft – made the trip to Hartford with Fromm on Feb. 16 to participate in an “interest session” titled “Melodies That Sing: We Love to Sing This Song.” But first, the vocalists made a detour over to the statehouse, where they performed in the rotunda on Feb. 15. Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell proclaimed Feb. 16 to be Joyful Noise Day throughout the state.

Following the convention session, which also included discussions about music and cognition and exercises led by the group’s unofficial “godmother,” noted conductor-composer-educator Alice Parker, Joyful Noise also performed a concert for Hartford-area residents with disabilities, their caregivers, families and the public.

Fromm said her singers – who range in age from 20 to 65 – are extremely communicative through their music. Their repertoire includes traditional, simple folk standards such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “You Are My Sunshine,” along with rounds, partner songs and tunes composed specifically for them. Some songs even include verses they’ve contributed.

“What’s unique about these singers is they have no fear,” she said. “They’re very expressive and eager to connect with audiences.

“They’ve been very excited about their trip and have been talking about it since August,” Fromm said, adding that group members also take what they do very seriously. Most even understand – and are quite passionate about – their roles in an effort the conductor has dubbed their “Mission to Inspire.”

“I’ve told them they will sing for choral musicians who’ve dedicated their lives to music and are just as passionate about it as we are,” she said. Members of the ensemble also are enthusiastic about the possibility that they may serve as an inspiration for developmentally challenged individuals everywhere.

Alison conducting
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Ira Shanfeld
Allison Fromm attributes part of her success with the group to the fact that she doesn’t modify her conducting style substantially.
“I apply the same skills and approach as a choral conductor would in any situation,” she said. “The repertoire is less complex and maybe things take longer, but ... my essential approach is the same.”

Chorus members’ physical and neurological disabilities range from cerebral palsy and epilepsy to Down Syndrome, autism and brain injuries suffered later in life. Musically, their abilities run the full spectrum. Some have sung in choirs before; for others, communal singing is a new experience.

“We have a couple with real musical ability,” Fromm said. “One picks out melodies on the piano after hearing CDs, but can’t read or write. We also have a member who stutters severely, yet can sing his solo verse in ‘Frére Jacques’ perfectly. Another, a research chemist injured in a car accident at the age of 49, has a terrible time with aphasia; he doesn’t always remember my name, yet he remembers the words to all the songs.”

Fromm attributes part of her success with the group to the fact that she doesn’t modify her conducting style substantially.

“I apply the same skills and approach as a choral conductor would in any situation,” she said. “The repertoire is less complex and maybe things take longer, but ... my essential approach is the same.”

That methodology is what sparked Parker’s interest in Fromm and the group.

“I first met Allison at a Chorus America conference and was just knocked off my feet because she was acting so professional with them,” Parker said. “Their ability is limited, but she was not treating them like a bunch of kindergartners ... she was asking so much of them.”

Because Parker believes “music is for the people, not for art,” she said that “seeing it succeed at this level was just so wonderful.”

Parker has visited and worked with Joyful Noise in the past, and composed the song “Memories Flow” for the chorus. She and six other composers accepted Fromm’s invitation to complete commissioned works that were funded in part by a $3,500 grant from the Philadelphia Eagles. Parker and the other composers – U. of I. music professor Chester Alwes, James Bassi, Gerald Cohen, Elliot Levine, Steven Sametz and Jon Washburn – also contributed much of their own time in kind to the project.

Another composer and choral director, Nick Page, was so inspired by the chorus that he composed a song for the group immediately after the Feb. 16 convention presentation – in the hotel lobby.

The generous response and interest from such highly regarded choral composers is just one way in which Fromm measures the success of Joyful Noise. The biggest indicators, by far, she said, are the members’ own personal growth and refined sense of self-worth.

“Their pride in themselves is something that’s really developed. Also, their openness with others and self-confidence have increased.

For example, Christine Dwyer, the sister of chorus member James Gilligan, told Fromm she often hosts social gatherings, and when her brother visited, he typically retreated to his room when guests arrived.

“Now he takes out his karaoke machine and entertains the guests,” Fromm said. “He’s more confident around family and friends in social situations.”

Other changes Fromm has noticed among the chorus members include improved diction and language skills, and a much better ability to focus.

Elene Kurtzman, whose daughter Jodi sings with Joyful Noise, said her daughter has benefited from the experience in yet another way.

“Jodi’s always had more self-confidence than 10 people,” Kurtzman said. “She’s used to being the one that takes all the attention, so singing with Joyful Noise has helped her participate better in a group situation.”

Since Fromm started Joyful Noise after she had already left the East Coast to attend school at Illinois, she originally envisioned stepping back from her duties as conductor and turning them over to someone else after the group was firmly established. For now, when her schedule back in Illinois prevents her from trekking to New Jersey for rehearsals, she relies on support from assistant conductor Cathy Sonnenberg and U. of I. alumnus and assistant conductor Mark Gary.

But so far, Fromm’s been unable to let go.

In part, she says, it’s because she feels she receives as much from the chorus as she gives.

“The experience has been valuable for me, in a doctoral program, where I tend to be very immersed in what I’m doing,” Fromm said. “While it’s important for me to try to polish the singing of (more professional) choruses I work with, it’s easy to lose sight of the power of music and the beauty of connecting with other human beings, and to lose touch with the expressive side of it.

“So when I perform, I remind myself of Joyful Noise and carry their spirit into the performance. It makes me a better musician.”

More information about the chorus is available online at www.joyfulnoisechorus.org.