As a child, Beth Fromm, who has seizures and developmental disabilities, was encouraged to express herself creatively through singing. When she became an adult, her educators focused more on teaching life skills such as how to sign a check, shop for groceries, fold laundry, and cook. But her creative side languished, says her sister, Allison Fromm, a choral director most recently at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That gave the sisters an idea: Why not start a choral group for people with neurologic and developmental disabilities?
That was 17 years ago. Today, Joyful Noise is a chorus of 45 adults between the ages of 17 and 74 with a range of neurologic conditions. The two groups, one in New Jersey and one in Delaware, meet regularly to rehearse. Both are sponsored by Bancroft, an organization that provides residential and other services to adults with neurologic and developmental disabilities in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Since its inception, Joyful Noise has given more than 125 performances, including some with choruses at universities like Harvard and Yale. In 2011, it was the first group of singers with neurologic disabilities to sing at the national conference of the American Choral Directors Association in Chicago. And with funding from the Philadelphia Eagles Community Quarterback Awards program, the chorus has even commissioned new works.
Allison, the choral director, says she adapts the rehearsals based on her knowledge of what Beth would need. “I'm trained as a choral conductor, not in special education. But I grew up with my sister, so I adapt the techniques I would use in any rehearsal [to her and the group's needs]. We pursue the same goals, but we have a few more interruptions and the pace can be slower. We also don't use as much sheet music, and we often teach by ear. For songs with multiple parts, we might have two song leaders to help the members follow,” she explains. She may also instruct singers with Down syndrome, who often have weaker tongue muscles, to sing the end of musical phrases instead of whole passages in some pieces.
Although some of the singers have participated in their church or synagogue choirs, they say they often fall behind or are constantly being redirected, says Allison. “Joyful Noise is incredibly supportive. It allows members to learn at a slower pace and master the music presented to them.” At weekly rehearsals, members have the time and freedom to ask questions, offer opinions, make musical suggestions, and simply be themselves. “They also get many opportunities to shine as soloists, which would be less likely in community ensembles,” she says. “Still, many become comfortable enough with some compositions to sing them with community, university, and even international choral groups.”
A CHORUS OF FRIENDS
Six years ago, a residential counselor at Bancroft told Sathya Prabhaker, who works as customer service associate at a convenience store and has Asperger syndrome, about Joyful Noise. He has been at rehearsal almost every week since and has made many friends, one of whom he gets together with outside of rehearsals and performances. In fact, the opportunity to make new friends is a key reason he recommends the chorus to others.
Ingrid Foster, 44, who has cerebral palsy and works as a greeter at Walmart, agrees. She has been a member for almost 16 years, and socializes with many chorus friends outside of rehearsals and performances. She also loves to sing. Her favorite piece is “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music. “I sing the Julie Andrews part,” she says.
“It can be hard to fully express yourself sometimes if you have a disability,” Foster says, “but Joyful Noise has helped us find our voices.”
For more information and to learn how to start a chorus in your area, visit http://joyfulnoisechorus.org.