A pre-pandemic performance by 30th Street and Coro Solera older adult choirs. Photo by Kelsey Ogden courtesy of SF Community Music Center.

You wouldn’t guess from the excited conversations and two-part harmonies drifting from the Mission Neighborhood Centers’ courtyard that Coro Solera had not met in person since the pandemic began 18 months ago.

Twelve members joined the in-person practice on Friday, Sept. 10, and 10 more joined over Zoom. 

“It’s wonderful to be back,” said Sari Trelaun, 78, who joined the in-person gathering. “That was hard on Zoom. You don’t really know if you’re in tune with somebody or not.”

“I sing second voice,” she explained, referring to how she sings in complementary keys to produce a harmonizing effect. “It’s important that I have backup.” 

Rose East-Bratt, 70, agreed. “[On Zoom], you can’t hear our singing,” she said. “You’re just singing to yourself, really.”

The group, which meets weekly, began nine years ago and is one of 13 older adult choirs serving adults with disabilities and adults 60 years and older. The program is administered by the Community Music Center in collaboration with senior centers across San Francisco.  

On the first Friday back, the choir sang a lot of songs about death and dying: “La Cigarra,” “La Martiniana,” “La Llorona,” “Sin Ti.” Día de los Muertos is coming up, said Jennifer Peringer, the choir’s music arranger and accordion accompanist. After that, they will move on to Christmas songs.

“Wow, that was a note there, aye!” said Sari’s friend Isabel when Peringer hit a high one at the end of “La Cigarra (The Cicada),” a sorrowful confessional in which the singer wishes to die singing like the cicada’s song.

Claudia, another Coro Solera member, asked about the harmonies in “La Martiniana,” a folk ballad imploring a loved one to sing rather than cry when their beloved dies. It would be nice to divide the parts, said Peringer, “so you get a sense of dialogue.”

Between songs sung in Spanish, a native speaker usually reads the lyrics aloud. Coro Solera was started as a Spanish-language choir, but they go bilingual when non-native speakers join. Approximately half of the in-person members on Friday were non-native Spanish speakers.

“We try to reflect the cultures of the people who are in the choir,” said Peringer. 

Martha Rodríguez-Salazar, Coro Solera choir director and Peringer’s spouse, is originally from Mexico. The Center where they meet serves people from El Salvador and Guatemala, and other members represent Argentina, Chile, Cuba and more.

Choir members are not required to audition or read music, and beginners are always welcome. Many come for the social as well as musical outlet. 

The adult choir program was formed out of the Community of Voices research study implemented by Community Music Center, University of California San Francisco and the San Francisco Department of Disability and Aging between 2012 and 2018. 

The final results demonstrated how the choirs helped reduce loneliness and increase interest in life for older adults more vulnerable to isolation.

Sylva Sherman, Community Music Center program director, said they are still focused on community building and improving physical, cognitive, and social benefits of choir members.

The choirs served almost 400 adults prior to the pandemic, and reached about 200 when they moved to Zoom. All choirs are currently offered in hybrid (in-person and Zoom) formats, and Sherman expects the hybrid format to grow these numbers up to and beyond their 370 in-person capacity.

Proof of vaccination is required to participate in Coro Solera on site, participants are distanced during singing and masked at all times, and they meet in an open air venue. Still, not everyone is comfortable coming back to sing in person yet.  

But for many, the in-person practices are critical.

“It has enchanted my life,” said East-Bratt, a Coro Solera member of three years. 

“You know they say singing is good as you age, and especially in the pandemic with isolation and everything,” she said. “It really took me out of the shell that I was in.”

East-Bratt has lung cancer. She said it’s not growing anymore, but she must manage her condition with daily medication. Coro Solera is helping, too.

“I can breathe much better, and I think the singing has helped me,” she said. “For me, because I can get the air out, I feel really powerful right now!”

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"Annie" is originally from Nebraska, where she found her calling to journalism as editor of her high school newsletter. Before returning to the field, she studied peace and political science in the Balkans, taught elementary and middle school, and worked as an epidemiologist during the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow her on Twitter @anlancheney.

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