Past Times and Voices of Spring are two large community choirs welcoming older people, including those living with dementia and other age-related illnesses. The choirs are supported by Kildare County Council (KCC) Arts Service and have been directed by Sharon Murphy and Sadhbh O’Sullivan since January 2015. They rehearse weekly in McAuley Place, Naas and The Mill Community Centre, Celbridge.
The choirs have a combined membership of 90 participants, including nursing home residents, home carers, KARE service users, active retirees and volunteers. To date the choirs have collaborated with youth choirs, local workplace choirs, concert bands, singer/songwriters and school children.
- Maintain an inclusive choir for older people, with a special welcome for those living with dementia or other age-related conditions and their carers.
- Deliver a high-quality Arts & Health activity that promotes wellbeing through social singing and meaningful music participation.
- Create opportunities for the choir to showcase their achievements to friends and family by organising performances in local, accessible venues.
- Embrace the community by engaging with local groups and artists where possible.
- Promote the value of community singing by maintaining the choir’s place within the developing field of Arts & Health in Kildare and nationwide.
Drawing upon their training in Arts & Health, community music, reminiscence arts, movement, and singing for a range of concerns including trauma, Parkinson’s and lung health, the musical directors have developed a methodology that is both holistic and adaptable. Each session varies to include some combination of the following elements:
Vocal warmups are common to all choirs, but in this context special consideration is given to making them accessible. The following are some examples of how vocal warmups are incorporated:
- Using segments of familiar songs or a song from the current repertoire, i.e. repeating the segment in different keys or replacing lyrics with other sounds.
- Rounds provide an accessible way into the feeling of being in harmony.
- Call-and-response is a quick and fun way of allowing people to sing something new and access different parts of their range.
- Short songs that challenge the brain, e.g. songs where you can remove a frequently-occurring lyric and replace it with a movement.
- SOVTEs (Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract Exercises) are a way to practice controlling and extending the exhale, making them particularly useful for anyone with lung health issues.
Repertoire is chosen with collaborative input from choir members. Choices may be influenced by an overarching theme or to cater for potential soloists. The musical directors choose the keys and arrange the harmonies based upon the current strengths of the choir. The aim is to strike a balance between challenging and familiar material.
Movement is often used both during the warmup and as an energiser throughout the session. This may focus on rhythm or on encouraging the use of gross motor skills.
Reminiscence is an integral part of the social fabric of the choirs. While space is allowed for reminiscence in every session, dedicated sessions also punctuate the year.
With an average of three performances per year, the choirs have collaborated with community groups including The Ballymore Eustace Concert Band, Camphill Community Bells Orchestra, ANAM Youth Choir and Ceola Staff Choir. Performances have taken place at Bealtaine Festival, Climate Action Week, Culture Night, and various conferences.
The Rhinestone Cowboy Sessions
Inspired by Glen Campbell who continued to create throughout a dementia diagnosis, The Rhinestone Cowboy Sessions saw the choirs collaborate with Irish artists Charlie McGettian, Ross Breen and Sive.
Christmas Portrait Series
During lockdown in late 2020, phone calls were made to members to capture their favourite Christmas memories. Their words were published on Facebook alongside existing professional portraits throughout the month of December.
- The musical directors regularly hold debriefs and verbal feedback is gathered from members.
- 2015: Occupational therapist Roisin Jackman used the MOHOST tool to evaluate her residents’ occupational function.
- 2017: An external evaluation was carried out by Elaine Hanlon.
- 2017: A study called ‘Sing Yourself Better’ (Hilary Moss et al.) referenced Past Times.
- 2021: Sadhbh wrote ‘The Singing Body’ reflecting on her work with the choirs.
Sharing sample findings, OT Roisin Jackman reported that one resident’s confidence had greatly improved, increasing his willingness to initiate conversation and ability to interact appropriately. She attributed these improvements to him having a place within his community that was safe and accepting, providing a sense of belonging.
100% of members interviewed for the 2017 report agreed that singing improved their mood, 97% felt a better sense of wellbeing afterwards, and 88% said it had a positive impact on their personal life. The following is some feedback from that report:
It’s a spiritual thing, there’s a lovely energy about it all.
It’s one space that he can say is his own space and not mine. That’s important. It’s a sense of who he is.
It lifts us all.
The success of Past Times led to a recognition of the need for these outlets, giving rise to the foundation of Voices of Spring two years later. Sharon Murphy and Sadhbh O’Sullivan now offer Music and Health training through Embrace Music.
Having come through voluntary roles with the choir and taken part in some of the aforementioned training opportunities, Eric Hanlon and John O’Neill have taken over as co-musical directors of Past Times Community Choir as of January 2023.
Documentation and Dissemination
- Performances are promoted through social media, local press and with posters hung in the choirs’ localities.
- Photographs and videos of performances are shared on the Past Times and Voices of Spring Facebook pages.
- The Rhinestone Cowboy Sessions were filmed and launched on the Past Times Community Choir YouTube channel.
- Past Times Community Choir featured on RTE’s HSE documentary ‘Keeping Ireland Alive’ and on a Nationwide Christmas edition.
- In the early years, Sharon and choir member Larry O’Toole appeared on ‘Walk in my Shoes’, a pop-up radio station in St Patrick’s University Hospital. More recently Sadhbh discussed the choirs on the Panti Personals with Panti Bliss.
The choirs were founded by musical directors Sharon Murphy and Sadhbh O’Sullivan alongside Anne Harris from the HSE and Carolann Courtney from KCC Arts Service, with support from Dementia Elevator and Age Friendly Kildare. They are funded by KCC Arts Service, the HSE Health Promotion & Improvement Department, and the Arts Council, and hosted by McAuley Place in Naas and The Mill Community Centre in Celbridge.
Date of Publication
Past Times Community Choir was founded in January 2015 and Voices of Spring was founded in February 2017. Both projects are ongoing.
Kildare County Council Arts Service
Kildare County Council Arts Service, HSE Health Promotion & Improvement Department, Arts Council of Ireland
Eric Hanlon, John O’Neill, Sadhbh O’Sullivan, Sharon Murphy
Community Health, Mental Health, Older People
Nature of project
Collaborative/ participatory, Performance