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Published December 10, 2013, 06:45 PM

Joyful noise: People with Parkinson’s, brain disorders find fellowship, strengthen vocal cords in Tremble Clefs Choir

FARGO - In this season of songs, a very different act performs today as part of the Plains Art Museum’s Noon Holiday Concert series.

By: John Lamb, INFORUM

FARGO - In this season of songs, a very different act performs today as part of the Plains Art Museum’s Noon Holiday Concert series.

It’s not a group of young students, though the ensemble is just learning how to get the most out of their voice and in some cases, even re-learning how to breathe again. It’s not a group of seasoned veterans, though some members of this choral group have been singing for 50 years or more.

The Tremble Clefs Choir, consisting of members with Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, brain injury survivors and even one with dementia, performs a handful of tunes as part of today’s show.

The mini-concert will be the group’s third in the past two weeks, but its first public appearance. Other performances were for a Parkinson’s support group and at Rosewood on Broadway, a nursing home where one of the group’s former member lives.

“It’s major for us, but minor in the grand scope of things. Singing in a nursing home is not a big resume builder,” Tremble Clef singer Bruce Anderson says with a smile.

Just flashing a smile can be something that takes work for some with Parkinson’s, members say.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. While tremors are a well-known symptom, those affected by it sometimes have a blank expression as well as slowed and softened speech.

Singing may seem counterintuitive, but it can help strengthen the vocal cords, exercise facial muscles and even help with balance, says choir director Michelle Gelinske.

A voice and piano teacher, Gelinske was approached a few years ago by an adult student, Jan Nelson, about starting the program. Nelson, an occupational therapist, started HeartSprings Community Healing Center, a non-profit holistic organization focused on diseases like Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.

They started local chapter of Tremble Clefs, a nationwide program, four years ago. The group has struggled to get its name out there to let others know what they do and how to get involved.

Still, organizers see it as a small-scale success.

“The purpose is to be joyful and make a lot of noise,” Nelson says. “It is inspiring for them to know they can sing.”

The biggest victory, she says is just getting people to show up.

“Parkinson’s can inhibit some, and they give up on parts of life they used to be involved in. The choir re-engages them back into life,” Nelson says.

She points to the fact that members don’t just attend Tuesday practices at Messiah Lutheran Church in Fargo to hit their notes. Choir members will often gather afterward for a communal lunch and conversation.

“They exercise, sing and eat together,” Nelson says. “For me, that’s the most important part, to feed not only the body, but the soul and the spirit … The biggest thing the choir offers is hope.”

Chuck Erstad says the social aspect and fellowship is why he’s been coming for the past year.

Erstad and his wife moved to Fargo from Jamestown when health concerns became a factor. Tremble Clefs helped him make new friends.

He even helped bring in the group’s newest member, Al Nelson, who has been coming for just a few weeks.

The 73-year-old Nelson was diagnosed four years ago and was forced to retire as a barber. While Parkinson’s patients may feel their condition ostracizes them, Nelson says Tremble Clefs and a support group at Sanford Health – where he met Erstad – have helped him come out of his shell recently.

“My wife can notice that I’m so much more outgoing,” he says.

His doctors and therapists encourage him to act big and loud, project his voice, gesture when he talks and move his arms when he walks.

Gelinske incorporates some of that in choir rehearsals. The group warms up with vocal exercises, including raising arms over their heads while emphatically sounding out words. Later, they sing and act out “The Hokey Pokey” to “shake it all about.”

Rehearsals wind through old favorites like “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” and “Ring of Fire,” along with the new “Sing With Our Tremble Clef Choir.”

The group sings their signature tune today with the composer, Fargo pianist Darin Henze. Performer Steve Stark will also join the group for “White Christmas.”

The theme song addresses the lack of facial expression, but that only makes Jim Coffey glow even more.

“It just fills your heart with happiness and joy. It hits it on the nail perfectly,” he says.

The 84-year-old was diagnosed 13 years ago and while his tremors have forced him to give up his photography hobby, he’s found something to take its place.

“I never dreamed I’d be in a choir or a musical group. I love music,” he says, sitting at a table for dinner with friends after last week’s performance for a Parkinson’s support group.

“I feel good about having the disease, because it put me in contact with so many people,” he says. “Seeing these people as often as we do, that’s inspiring to me.”

If You Go

WHAT: Tremble Clefs Choir with Michelle Gelinske and Darin Henze

WHEN: Noon today

where: Plains Art Museum, 704 1st Ave., N., Fargo

info: Free

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533