DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — For Joel Gorun, music had been a lifelong source of joy, with sweet melodies that waxed nostalgic memories of days gone by.
He found a particular passion for singing and took advantage of every opportunity he could to lift his tenor voice among fellow choristers in the Dubuque Chorale, the Music Men A Cappella Barbershop Chorus and at local churches.
So when Joel began suffering from memory loss last summer, he knew that with a diagnosis came an opportunity.
Long touted for its benefits beyond enjoyment, music has been shown to activate regions of the brain spared by Alzheimer's, as well as preserve what is known as "musical memory" (the brain's ability to recognize familiar music), alter functional connectivity and improve overall health.
"For him, he recognized the importance of music altogether, but he knew the benefits it could have for people suffering from dementia," Joel's wife, Marilyn, told the Telegraph Herald. "And because music was so much a part of his life, he felt the need to contribute somehow."
Before his death in March at age 77, Joel became the impetus behind the Northeast Iowa School of Music's Healing Harmonies Chorus, an ensemble with an eye toward providing an outlet for non-care-center Alzheimer's disease patients in the tri-states, along with their caregivers.
Thanks to Tracey Rush, Northeast Iowa School of Music founder, a part of Joel remains with the ensemble, which recently began its weekly rehearsals.
In 2018, after Gorun had approached Rush with the idea for the group, Rush had been selected in a competitive process to participate in the National Guild's Catalyzing Creative Aging program, an initiative designed to support new creative aging programs at nonprofit arts education organizations nationwide.
Through that support, Rush was able to help see Joel's dream through.
"Joel loved to sing, and he wanted to keep singing," Rush said. "Something like this was just on his heart. And there can be limited creative outlets for people going through dementia and even for people in that 65 and older group."
The Healing Harmonies Chorus is a fitting ensemble for the Northeast Iowa School of Music, joining the roster alongside the New Horizons Band for those 50 and older. Rounding that out are music groups dedicated to youth, as well as the women's ensemble Sweet Adelines International and the Dubuque Community String Orchestra.
"When I started the school 18 years ago, I did it with the idea of music for all," Rush said. "It's not just for kids. It's not just for adults. It's also for people with needs. It might not be therapy, but it can be therapeutic."
Healing Harmonies is led by Callie Mescher, a certified neurologic music therapist and piano and voice teacher in the Dubuque area. She specializes in working with those with disabilities, as well as those dealing with memory loss.
"This group isn't just about singing but about building relationships," said Mescher, who slowly warms the group up before working with them on good breath support, loosening their jaws, counting out rhythms and making music out of the small dots sitting upon staves on the page. "And that's really what music is about as well."
The group sings memory-infused melodies such as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," as well as patriotic tunes in preparation for an upcoming Fourth of July concert.
"Memory loss is a scary thing," Mescher said. "There is no predicting it. So to see people picking up old melodies they knew and having an exposure to something creative, it just shows how powerful the mind and music are. A outlet like this is very exciting for our community."
The group currently fluctuates between six and nine people. Among them are former music teachers, as well as those who have never sung or played an instrument.
Front and center is Marilyn, who admitted that it's difficult to be there without Joel singing alongside her. Yet, she's comforted in experiencing how his dream is benefiting others.
"My voice isn't anywhere near what Joel's was, but I'm enjoying getting back into singing," she said. "And it's a way for me to keep connected to Joel."
Marilyn also is eager to see the group continue to grow as more people become familiar with it as a community offering. Those interested are encouraged to sign up, with a caregiver.
"There is one gentleman who has been in music for a long time, so it's rewarding to see that at this stage of his life, it's still something that he can enjoy," she said. "Joel would have loved to have sung with this group. We owe a lot to Tracey and the Northeast Iowa School of Music. Without them, this might have died with Joel."
Information from: Telegraph Herald, http://www.thonline.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Telegraph Herald.