“You meet the best people — people who love to sing,” says Deborah of the bimonthly gatherings. “Last time we sang ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ one of the residents said it was her family’s favorite song growing up. You could see it brought back a lot of good family memories for her. That’s the best part — to really listen to their stories.”
Deborah is a professional musician and music teacher, proudly following in the footsteps of her mother. Before retirement, Suzanne worked as a professional musician, singer and music teacher in the Buffalo, N.Y., area. She also sang in the chorus at the Buffalo Philharmonic.
“[The music] just went straight to your heart,” Suzanne says.
As a teacher, Suzanne developed music programs for children and senior citizens alike, and she also spent time teaching visually impaired children. Suzanne taught visually impaired and sighted children in tandem, building a community wherein being differently abled didn’t matter.
Each day, Suzanne would roll in a suitcase filled with “found sound” materials — homemade instruments such as rubber gloves stretched over empty oatmeal containers and capped paper towel rolls filled with pebbles. But what may have looked like trash to the layperson was treasure to the children she taught.
“It was just great. I had a group of children of varying ages, and they would take paper and make butterflies and put them on their hands — even the children who didn’t see well.”
Suzanne’s programming went beyond simply teaching the children to sing “Do-Re-Mi,” emphasizing participation, community-building and fun.
“The main component was always fun,” says Suzanne. She recalls how, in the ‘80s, famed composer John Williams created an iconic theme for the Olympics, that her students would come to recognize. “When the Olympics were on, the children, whether they were seeing or not, would wave scarves when they heard the instruments playing,” Suzanne says, before she and Deborah hum a few bars of the song.
“I wonder to this day if they still remember — because I do,” she says.
It’s this same joy, community, and honoring of memories that Suzanne and Deborah bring to Brookdale Hillsborough.
“I’ve learned a lot of people’s first names, and I’ve been talking to them in a way that I wouldn’t have [without the community choir],” Deborah says. “But now you can learn about where someone comes from, or where they were born, and I just think it kind of works magic.”
But if you aren’t much of a singer, or particularly musically inclined, don’t worry.
“When it comes to singing with me,” Suzanne says, “I welcome everybody in! If all you can do is say the words, do it!”
For Suzanne and Deborah, and now for the Brookdale Hillsborough community, music is about much more than singing the right words and hitting the right notes.
“It’s a basic need of every human being to sing, and express, and to make music, and to be together,” says Suzanne. “It’s something you can do on your own; it’s better when you’re with company.”
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