When they were little, Josie Schmer, Gloria Gaynor and Ruth Bunch gathered around the radio to listen to music and radio shows.
Decades later, the women are doing it again — together, this time.
Schmer, 85, Gaynor, 96, and Bunch, 82, live at the Stonecrest senior-living community in Woodbury. Twice a month, they gather for “Spirit Song Radio,” an old-fashioned radio show that features sing-along music, corny jokes and groan-inducing puns.
“It’s been such a blessing to me,” said Schmer, who moved to Stonecrest in 2017. “It’s just so relaxing, and it helps you to stay in touch with the world. I love to sing. My sister and I used to sing. My parents used to sing. It’s great to have music on the radio. I listen to it all the time.”
Spirit Song Radio is the brainchild of the Spirit Song Choir, an ecumenical and inter-generational community choir based in Woodbury. The 85 members range in age from 8 to 84 and sing “a mix of sacred and secular music – music that lifts the spirit,” said Mary Reimann, the choir’s president and music director.
Reimann founded the choir in late 2019 to bring song and community into senior-living communities like Stonecrest, St. Therese Senior Living of Woodbury and Woodbury Senior Living.
“We were in a groove, learning new music, realizing there was a call for what we did and forming relationships with three different senior communities,” Reimann said. “We were forming not just a choir, but, really, this beautiful community.”
Then COVID hit and “everybody was feeling isolated and frightened, and we realized everything in life had changed,” she said.
A chance conversation with her sister led Reimann to explore a new technology — something Reimann is usually loath to do, she said.
“She said, ‘Well, you should try Zoom,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know what Zoom is.’ This was March 2020,” Reimann said. “She explained it to me and said, ‘It’s for meetings, but I wonder if you could figure out a way to rehearse using that.’”
Within a week, Spirit Song Choir was gathering virtually for its first Zoom rehearsal. The choir also began leading virtual sing-alongs on Facebook.
Members of the Spirit Song Choir in Woodbury meet Monday, May 9, 2022, via Zoom to record their latest installment of “Spirit Song Radio.” The episode, “The 32nd Annual Annual Flower Show,” will be broadcast at senior living communities in Woodbury and published online. (Courtesy of Spirit Song Choir)
But Reimann quickly realized that the choir’s main fan base, its seniors living in the local senior-living communities, weren’t on Facebook. “We were reaching other people that way, but not this community,” she said.
It was Renee Vaughan, director of life enrichment and volunteer services at Stonecrest, who suggested using a low-watt FM transmitter to broadcast the choir’s sing-alongs for residents.
“I found a low-power FM transmitter in my basement and hooked it up,” Vaughan said. “We played Bingo, and the transmitter had to be smack dab in the middle of the building (to reach everyone). I had to call the numbers from there, and then people would call in on the phone, saying ‘I got a Bingo!’ And then we’d have the bus driver, who wasn’t driving the bus then, we’d have him go run the candy bars to people.”
Other Stonecrest broadcasts included: meditation sessions; story time; bird of the day; and “sports talk – a.k.a., the Minnesota Vikings Emotional Support Group,” Vaughan said. “We had great courses, COVID updates, etc., all over the radio. Good times that I am glad are over.”
A SHOW IS BORN
When Spirit Song Choir members reached out to see what they could do to help, Vaughan asked if they would record songs that she could play on the radio.
WSSR, or “Spirit Song Radio,” was born.
“You could walk down the hallways, covered head to toe in PPE, and you could hear people listening to the radio in their apartments, and you could hear one voice singing loud in the apartments, but you could hear in the background the radio show playing,” Vaughan said. “It gave this sense, yes, we’re alone, but we aren’t alone; we were all there together. When I heard music in the hallways again, a communal experiencing of the music, that’s when I had my first sense of normalcy, my first sense of ‘We’re going to get through this.’ Nothing can connect people the way that music can.”
Residents of Stonecrest Senior Living Center, including Darrell Butterwick, top, sing along with the Spirit Song Radio show. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)
Said Reimann: “There’s something about the simple, human act of singing together. It’s healing and transformational.”
The choir members produce a new sing-along radio show every two weeks. They have written and recorded 31 so far.
Each episode starts with a theme — usually connected to an upcoming season or holiday — and a selection of songs to match. Among the songs included on the “Road Trip” episode broadcast at Stonecrest on Tuesday: “On the Road Again,” “Country Road” and “This Land Is Your Land.”
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Volunteer script writers put together introductions to each song, making sure to include a healthy dose of corny jokes and puns, Reimann said.
The group, which includes characters like Parking Patrol Peg, the Chatty Sisters, Anonymous Interruptus and Cliff the Mailman by Day and Farmer Every Other Day of the Year, records the dialogue together on Zoom.
During a recent show on gardening, Parking Patrol Peg, played by choir member Peg Regruth, explained that gardening was her “favorite hobby, next to camping.”
“I wanted to be a horticulturist before I went into law,” Regruth said.
“Why didn’t you?” asked Ann Kysely.
“Because I wouldn’t make enough money, as the celery was too low,” Regruth said.
Each show starts with the booming voice of choir member Tom Vaaler: “Welcome to WSSR, otherwise known as “Spirit Song Radio,” where our music is ringing, and our listeners are singing. I’m Tom V.”
Songs are recorded separately by each member of the choir using the Voice Memo app on their cellphones. The voices are blended together in the GarageBand recording app “so it sounds as if everyone is in the same room singing together,” Reimann said.
Anyone can listen to the show by clicking on a SoundCloud link on the choir’s website, but Stonecrest airs them at a scheduled time each week.
Reimann, who has spent more than 30 years working as a church music director, said she never dreamed she would one day be producing an old-fashioned radio show.
“Not in a million years,” she said. “It’s been really a delightful surprise – the way that we do the work, the writing process and recording process. I am so grateful for that technology because we are able to meet and build community and have conversations and share stories. We laugh so hard in the recording sessions when things go off the rails. The creative outlet has been really great. This is a truly beautiful community of kind and generous people, willing to share their time, their gifts and their hearts to create something beautiful together – sending love out into the world in the shape of a song.”
Schmer said she loves watching residents who live in Stonecrest’s memory-care unit listen to the broadcasts.
“Those old-time songs come right back to them,” she said. “They are able to sing out loud and clear. I’m so glad COVID is over. We survived, and we’re going to go forward.”
SPIRIT SONG CHOIR CONCERT
Spirit Song Choir members sing during their December 2019 concert, “Sing We All Noel! A Community Choral Christmas,” at Woodbury Lutheran Church in Woodbury. (Courtesy of Julie Reimann)What: Spirit Song Choir’s “This Is Our Song of Peace” concert
When: 3 p.m. Sunday May 15
Where: King of Kings Lutheran Church, 1583 Radio Drive, Woodbury
Cost: The concert is free; a free-will offering will be taken to benefit Ukrainian relief through the Eastern European Crisis Response of the ELCA.
COVID protocol: Masks are required.
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