Close harmony

Chris Erickson, left, and Marlys Fiterman give an impromptu performance of "Side By Side."

Voices raised in song can fill the heart with inspiration, especially when the mind is changing.

That’s the purpose behind a new choir in the process of forming in Green Valley for a select group of singers – people with memory loss and their caregivers.

The local effort will be a first for the area and will team choir director Marlys Fiterman, who’s also a singer and pianist, with Chris Erickson, the parish nurse at Valley Presbyterian Church.

Inspired by the Giving Voice choir that formed in 2014 in Minneapolis, the movement to improve the quality of life of participants through singing has led to a network of about 40 dementia-friendly choirs in the U.S., U.K, Canada and Australia, said Fiterman, a Minnesota native and a winter resident of Green Valley.

The choir, called By My Side, will be in Green Valley and is designed for those with early to mid-stage dementia and their caregivers. The program also seeks volunteers. 

Research indicates that music memory stays with dementia patients and that singing or listening can have emotional and behavioral benefits, said Erickson, who once worked as a nurse in the neurology ward of a hospital.

Caregivers face challenges in taking care of those with dementia, and too often everyday tasks can create conflict and stress. The choir’s aim is to provide caregivers a stress-free activity they can enjoy with their loved ones, said Erickson, who will guide participants in chair and stretching exercises before choir practice.

Two similar choral groups are in the process of forming in the Phoenix area, said Fiterman, who pitched the concept to Erickson after seeing the Minneapolis choir in performance.  “She took the idea and ran with it,” said Fiterman, and it didn’t take long for church leaders to get on board.

“We’re in complete harmony,” she said, as she joined Erickson in an impromptu performance of “Side By Side.”

Fiterman is a former high school choir leader who has also been a choir director for churches and synagogues. She also knows first-hand the impact music can have on a loved one affected by memory loss.

“My mother was a pianist and she had Alzheimer's,” she said. “But she could sit down and play beautifully.

“It’s almost like music defies dementia,” Fiterman said. “It speaks to them, it’s inside, they remember the notes and words.”

As for the choir that will soon form, Fiterman said the first goal is to attract people who will volunteer their time to help organize the group, as well as sing and get the word out. 

Steve Sinovic (520)547-9728 


Steve Sinovic is an Oregon native who has worked as a journalist all over the western United States.