Healing Reflections: "Memories of Music" by Kobi Shaw

Feb 15, 2021 | Hannah Schlotthauer | @schlohan

"Memories of Music"
Story By: Kobi Shaw | Colfax, WI

Cathy Reitz started the Stand in the Light Memory Choir (SITLMC) in 2016, allowing people in the early-to-mid stages of memory loss and their care partners to come together and share their love of singing and music. This choir also crosses generations with volunteer singers of all ages paired with singers that might not have a caregiver with them. While there are many choirs in the Chippewa Valley, this is the only dementia choir in this area, with the next closest ones being in LaCrosse or the cities. Because of its uniqueness, the choir draws members from Eau Claire, Altoona, Menomonie, Chippewa Falls, Fairchild, Eleva, Mondovi, Holcombe and more.

As the choir's musical director, Cathy is always learning and looking for new opportunities for her choir members. She attends conferences or workshops, networking with other dementia choirs from over the world, learning what she can. While some people prefer to shelter those with dementia, Cathy believes in stretching choir members capabilities, finding opportunities for them to socialize and share their talents publicly through concerts and performances at local venues. Cathy is willing to take risks, going out of her comfort zone to learn new skills when it comes to bettering what she can bring to the choir. She has a passion for this cause and loves her choir members, going out of her way to be accessible to all on both a personal and professional level. The time and energy she invests in this choir go far beyond just rehearsals.

The impact Cathy and her choir has made on our community is huge. Prior to the pandemic, the choir would meet once a week in person, allowing both rehearsal and socialization time. For many of choir members living with dementia, this is the only opportunity for them to leave their homes and participate in an activity, an activity that stretches their brain, allows them to laugh and make music and feel some normalcy. As Cathy tells her choir members, "I know you think it’s a dementia choir, but you’re just my choir, and some of you happen to have dementia,” Reitz says. After one concert, a choir member's husband commented, "Thank you so much. I saw my wife's eyes light up when she sang. She was back."

At the first SITLMC concert, there were 20 choir members. This past spring the choir had over 60 members. As a result, the choir has outgrown their rehearsal space and have begun thinking about possibly breaking into two dementia choirs. Cathy believes in her choir members, allowing them to surprise themselves as well as those around them. An example - tackling songs arranged for 3 parts. Family members of singers have attended concerts and have been stunned watching their loved ones, shocked to learn their spouse or parent still had such capabilities. Cathy also incorporates choir members' skills and interests. To process her feelings about living with dementia, one choir member writes poetry. Cathy took one of those poems, commissioned a local composer to write a piece of music, using the poem as lyrics. This piece was performed in a concert last fall. Can you imagine how thrilling it must have been for that choir member, to hear her poem used in a musical piece that they rehearsed for weeks and weeks prior to performing for a packed audience at a public concert? Cathy has also brought in guest performers allowing choir members to sing alongside professional Broadway performers with local ties. These are just a few examples of Cathy's ingenuity and the lengths she goes to give her choir members the optimal experience.

When the pandemic hit, like everything else, Stand in the Light Memory Choir was shut down. It was about a month before their annual spring concert and there was much disappointment from everyone. The choir kept changing dates trying to make the concert still happen, but it was not meant to be. Knowing how important this choir is to its members, Cathy was determined to keep people singing and started investigating how to a make virtual choir happen. She reached out to choir members, assisted living centers, board members, other dementia choirs and the Aging & Disability Resource Center. Under Cathy's leadership and vision, it was investigated which choir members had electronic devices and sufficient Wi-Fi to participate, finding alternative solutions for those in need. Assisted living communities were contacted, ensuring residents would receive help logging into virtual rehearsals. Cathy also formed a team of college students and millennials to troubleshoot and provide technical support, teaching choir members how to install Zoom, log on and participate in rehearsals. Again, a large portion of this choir is people living with dementia, people who need routine and generally do not handle change well. Yet somehow, Cathy was able to get the choir members to take a chance and thanks to her and her technical team, the choir members all adapted and transitioned smoothly to the new format.

An unexpected bonus of the virtual choir quickly became apparent. Without realizing it, through the power of Zoom, husbands and wives and other family remembers were seeing each other for the first time in months. Because of lock downs at assisted living centers, people had no way to see their loved ones, especially if they did not own or know how to operate an electronic device. But Cathy's coordination of the virtual choir allowed families to finally reconnect visually. The joy of them seeing each other, making music together once again brought tears to many people's eyes. As one of the millennial assistants commented, "I didn't know what to expect. I had to turn my screen off, I was crying so much. Everyone was so happy to be back together again." The choir has continued to connect family members from all over the country - and the world! Currently there are choir members from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, Oregon and England, joining mothers with daughters, aunts with nieces and even cousins. As one choir member shared, "This is the one time during the week that I can see and sing with people I recognize. I have been here by myself for nearly nine months. You have saved my sanity. I am so grateful."

I should note Cathy is a senior citizen and technically, was only a few steps ahead of anyone else, learning the new skills along with the choir. She worked endless hours alongside Adam Accola of CoLab, learning the ins and outs of making and creating music over Zoom, which is no easy task. Due to delays and time lags, virtual music rehearsals are nothing like singing in person, so Cathy found ways to adapt, always keeping things light and fun. She added new ways for the choir to connect, despite the distance. She started a Singer Spotlight Series where a featured choir member would talk about themselves, allowing people learn things they might have known. She established a Composer's Corner where every week, a set choir member speaks about a featured composer, typically a composer of one of the songs the choir is working on. Cathy most recently started Surprise Sing-alongs, where the choir sings along with a karaoke track that is not part of the regular song selection. She surprises the choir with the selection, based on their suggestions and interests. One choir member in particular is very partial to the Beatles, so she started with a well-known Beatles song and everyone, especially the Beatles fan, was thrilled.

Cathy never gave up on having that final semester concert/culmination celebration the choir was unable to have in the spring. She still wanted to give the choir something to work towards, something choir members could share and say, "I was part of this." Again, working with her assembled millennials, tech specialists and professional video editors, Cathy created an hour long "Virtual Showcase" that became a live event on the choir's YouTube page. Cathy pulled together everything that represented the choir from then and now. There are excerpts from past concerts, featured snippets of the Singer Spotlights, testimonials about how much the choir has meant to people, board members explaining the mission of the choir, a retelling of the history of the choir, reciting of poetry and songs performed virtually. One of the songs, "You Make Me Feel So Young," intermixes current choir members singing with photos of them in their youth. The virtual showcase is a joy and so beautifully represents the spirit of the choir and the person at the heart of it all, Cathy Reitz.

As SITLMC Board member Rev. David Huber says, this choir is remarkable. "Remarkable in making genuinely good music and remarkable in that it's a safe, loving, welcoming place for people with varieties of dementias who so often have no place to go. This is a place where they belong. This is a place where they are known by name and where they matter. What we do is so important and I'm so glad to be part of it."


Art by: Ethan Eberhardt | Eau Claire, WI

Ethan Eberhardt is an artist specializing in graphic design, illustration, and LEGO design in the Twin Cities and Chippewa Valley areas.  The subject matter of his work ranges from logos, portraiture, and recreations of movies, television shows, and video games.  He is currently finishing his study of graphic design at the University of Wisconsin - River Falls.

The inspiration for this piece came naturally to me; having been involved with multiple musicals as well as choirs from middle school through college, I’ve always loved the experience music, especially singing, can bring someone.  Cathy Reitz, who I’ve also had the pleasure of working with, is helping bring those same great musical experiences to community members with dementia and other memory-affecting conditions.  The end result was a piece that incorporated a conductor with the choir’s signature scarf as the stem of a brain formed from sheet music.


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