A resounding, joyful noise Members of a chorus of adults with special needs are excited as they prepare for a concert.

Posted: January 20, 2008

When Allison Fromm, now a doctoral candidate in choral conducting and literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and her sister, Beth, of Cherry Hill, decided in 2000 to create a chorus for adults in South Jersey with physical and neurological challenges, they didn't know what might transpire.

"When 15 people came forward at that first rehearsal, I realized I had chosen the perfect name for the group," said Fromm, who flies in twice a month to direct rehearsals. "There was more exuberance from that group of adults than I had ever seen from any group."

Thus was born Joyful Noise.

Beth, a Cherry Hill resident who has lived with physical and neurological challenges since childhood, says she feels proud whenever she sings with the chorus.

Joyful Noise is hosted by Bancroft NeuroHealth, a nonprofit based in Haddonfield that serves more than 800 people with disabilities throughout New Jersey and Delaware. Bancroft provides support to chorus members, including transportation to weekly rehearsals at the Jacob Schaefer Center in Cherry Hill.

The 30-member chorus performs at an array of venues. Its diverse repertoire ranges from holiday concerts, such as the recent one at the Voorhees Town Center (Echelon Mall), to the national anthem at a Camden Riversharks game. Though each member, from ages 20 to 65, has some type of disability, music seems to help them transcend daily obstacles.

George Lalka, 59, of Voorhees, a research chemist who suffered a brain injury as a result of an automobile accident in 1996, suffers from verbal aphasia, according to his sister, Nancy Longo, of Hammonton. Singing with the group has become one of the most important things in his life.

"I look at this as a music therapy," Longo said. "His whole affect is happier. When George performs - for that one moment - he is just like you and me. He is free from his disability; he is proud and sings with his heart and soul. He sings fluently as the lyrics flow easily and is free from the daily frustration of retrieving words and a world of silence and gesturing."

At a recent rehearsal, members shared their excitement about a planned trip to Hartford, Conn., where they'll perform Feb. 16 with composer and conductor Alice Parker at an instructional session of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) Eastern Regional Convention.

Parker, who lives in Massachusetts, met the ensemble four years ago, and Fromm commissioned a piece from her for the group. She's become an honorary mother or grandmother to the group.

"They are a model for what can be accomplished through choral music," said Parker, who created "Memories Flow" in response to one member's (with cerebral palsy) freeing experience of being in the water with her family.

An ACDA archivist says the convention performance will be the first for a chorus of individuals with disabilities.

Joyful Noise aims to raise $25,000 for the trip. To date, individuals and corporate sponsors have contributed more than $12,500.

"We are hoping to inspire conductors to launch similar groups in their communities," Fromm said.

"Our members have a real depth of experience," she said. "The chorus allows them to unlock their natural ability to express themselves. Audiences regard us with admiration and awe and are often moved by our performances."

Anne Matlack, an accompanist at one of the group's first concerts, agreed: "There seems to be no barrier between them and an audience." It was Matlack, the repertoire and standards chair for community choirs, ACDA Eastern Division, who recommended that Joyful Noise sing at the convention.

"Joyful Noise reminds us of the power of music in everyone," she said. "They show us the joy of music and are infectious about it."

Soloist Todd Emmons, 49, who lives in a supervised group home in Voorhees, says he is particularly inspired by music composed for them, such as "We Love to Sing" by Jon Washburn.

Fromm used her Philadelphia Eagles Community Quarterback volunteer award, along with the generosity of colleagues, to commission seven pieces by highly regarded composers.

Kathy Ross, vice president of Corporate and Family Services for Bancroft NeuroHealth, who has known many members for more than 20 years, is impressed with the group's professionalism and progress.

"When they perform, they stand up straight and proud and are self-confident," she said. "They know their lyrics; they know their songs. For these individuals to be on stage and for people to appreciate the value that they bring, it's a wonderful thing."

For Information

For more information on the group, visit www.joyfulnoisechorus.org.

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