Using Voices To Bridge The Ages Students And A Nursing-home Group Started What May Be The First Intergenerational Choir Of Its Kind.

Posted: February 26, 2001

Elsie Netter was born in 1909, when the automobile was in its infancy, her family was still traveling by horse and buggy, and television's debut was years away.It is an unimaginable time for James Rhodan, born in 1991, a time of cellular phones, home computers and space shuttles.

They have so little in common, this 91-year-old retired school principal and this 10-year-old boy with still so much to learn.

But what brought them together yesterday was a mutual love that easily bridged a generation gap eight decades wide: music.

Netter and James were among 12 residents of the NewCourtland nursing homes in Philadelphia and 17 students from the city's Settlement Music School meeting for the first time to sing to each other.

Today, they will sing together and take the next step in creating what NewCourtland and Settlement officials say is the first of its kind for this region and possibly the country: an intergenerational choir resulting from a collaboration between a national community arts school and a nursing home.

The organizers of Voices of Ages hope the choir will perform in public in Center City (though they aren't ready to say where) by summer.

Netter, wearing a black dress and rhinestone earrings and necklace, expressed far-less lofty goals yesterday as she waited for the Settlement students to arrive at Germantown Home, one of NewCourtland's facilities.

"I think the older people need to know . . . they can still do a few things," she said, leaning her frame on a cane for support. "Working with children makes you feel younger."

Forming Voices of Ages started in September as a project to address what Pam Mammarella, spokeswoman for NewCourtland, called "the three plagues of nursing homes: loneliness, helplessness and boredom."

"The idea was to create a large community for the people we service so their voices can be heard outside the four walls of the nursing facility," Mammarella said.

Settlement Music School wanted to be part of that larger community, said Teresa Cappello, a faculty member and the accompanist at yesterday's meeting. The choir members collaborating with NewCourtland residents are all from Settlement's Germantown branch.

"Music has no boundaries when it comes to age," Cappello said.

Settlement students were put through sensitivity training before meeting NewCourtland residents, Cappello said. They wore glasses smeared with Vaseline to get a sense of visual impairment and light weights on their arms and legs so they could better understand what it feels like to have movement encumbered by disease or old age.

Before the singing started yesterday, students filed past the NewCourtland choir members, eight of whom were in wheelchairs, and shook their hands.

Theodore E. Slater couldn't see them. The 53-year-old Brooklyn native is blind. But he greeted the children enthusiastically. Most of them tentatively touched his outstretched hand. An aide, Susan Irrgang, described each child to Slater.

"They're wonderful," he said with a smile when the Settlement students started to sing.

The program yesterday also doubled as a celebration of Black History Month. Short biographies of each of the NewCourtland choir members, predominantly African Americans, were printed in book form and distributed to the students. Some members told of picking cotton and tobacco in the South before moving to the Philadelphia area; others told of singing in church choirs, street corners and in clubs.

Among them was Frank Fitch, who was eager to demonstrate his talents yesterday.

"I get a chance to get out and show off my talent, to show people even though I'm in a nursing home, I can do other things," said Fitch, a 55-year-old former jewelry maker who can no longer walk because of cerebral palsy.

In prepping her students for yesterday's meeting, Cappello said she told them to "expect to see that regardless of age, music is a human strength that prevails."

And yet James did not expect to hear the booming voices he heard, he said while he sat in the audience and listened to Netter, Fitch, Slater and the rest of the NewCourtland choir.

"Very nice voices," he said, predicting the success of the intergenerational choir. "It's a good combination of our voices with theirs."

Diane Mastrull's e-mail address is dmastrull@phillynews.com.

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