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Too old to sing? No such thing

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The average age of a member in the Potter Ridge Singers is 86. In fact, for some choir members, the opportunity to get out and sing in public marks another milestone in their ripened lives.

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The 22-member group consists of primarily residents from Potter Ridge Assisted Living in Red Wing.

Directors Mickie Schutz and Sue Sands beam with delight as they talk about the choir's origination and growth.

Two years ago during a regular daily exercise class, Schutz, the Community Life Coordinator at Potter Ridge, popped in a CD for the group.

"The disc played all the old familiar songs like 'I've Been Working on the Railroad'," she explained, "As we began to exercise, all I could hear was how everyone started to sing-along."

The room full of 20-or-so exercising carolers gave Schutz an idea: She must try to start a choir.

At first, seniors were skeptical.

"Most of them said, 'No, I haven't sang since high school' or even 'I have never even sung in a choir before'," she explained.

Schutz never gave up and within time she had eight willing singers, music on a recorder and an experienced pianist for weekly rehearsals.

"I started setting up appointments to perform at rest homes," she said. "Some of our members would pass away, but more people joined and the choir kept going."

Today the group is bigger and better than Schutz or Sands said they could have imagined. Performing what Sands describes as "songs they were raised and are familiar with," the Potter Ridge Singers croons tunes from the 1930's, '40s and '50s dressed in matching white shirts and red bowties.

Sands and member Harriet Schammel accompany the choir on piano. No sheet music is needed for either woman.

"Everything they play is up here," Schutz said with a smile as she points to her head, "and we are talking hundreds and hundreds of songs."

For the choir members, the opportunity to sing songs while reminiscing the past, is something that is just too good to pass up.

"We just have a lot of fun, we all enjoy it," 92 year-old Elda Fossum said. "We have a great time singing the old time songs."

The positive effect the singing has on the members of the group has trickled over into the lives of their family members, audiences and also into their directors.

"To me, I get such a warm feeling because I see how some of the ladies in the choir change their hair appointments to make choir practice," Schutz said. "And to get your hair done here is like the ultimate thing - but they would rather sing."

The choral group has recently recorded a CD. "I never thought I would be doing something like that - especially at my age," laughed 88-year old member Marie Bengtson recalling the recording experience, "I have quite of few nephews and grandnephews in bands and they think it is quite interesting."

The self-titled CD was released earlier this month.

Their audience, like the size of the group, has expanded. From their regular stops at rest homes, the choir has sung for children's group, appeared at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing and has performed the national anthem twice for a St. Paul Saints baseball game.

The Correctional Facility concert seems to be the collective favorite show among choir members. The opportunity to perform for "the boys" and in return to watch them perform wasn't a culture shock.

"The boys look to the choir members as like they are their grandpa or grandma. They just click," Schutz said, "They are so comfortable, it's not like there is this big generation gap - even though they rap and dance for us. Their toes are tapping and hands are clapping when they watch us perform."

Schutz recently submitted an audition tape from the group to the Minnesota Twins in hopes the choir will be chosen to sing the national anthem at Target Field.

Standing with hands on their hearts while recording the anthem, Schutz said, "They might not all be on key but this might be their hoorah before they pass."

"It is just such a fun adventure," Sands said, "We are aiming for the Jay Leno Show. We will get there. Nobody like this has been on the show before - these people are so spirited and full of life. The performing aspect is incredible. How many 86-year-olds get out there and are doing something like this?"

With something to look forward to, the choir keeps on singing, now with a holiday concert arrangement.

"I like to advocate for people that are retired that you don't just give up because of age, you keep going for something," Schutz added.

The Potter Ridge Singers' next performance is set for 9:45 a.m. Thursday Dec. 20 at the Red Wing High School Hovda Auditorium. The group will be singing for special education students, but the concert is open to the public.

For more information on their CD which is available or to inquire about a performance, call Schutz at 651-388-1546 ext. 15. You can also find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PotterRidge.

Potter Ridge Singers

Marian Bjorklund, June Ferrie, Elda Fossum, Bob Fossum, Faythe Hawinkson, Mary Holst, Marie Bengtson, Donna Reisner, Spring Reisner, Richard Reese, Eileen Delk, Harriet Schammel, Lorraine Vincent, Mina Kull, Jim Tebbe, Earl Traster, Patty Fortner, Neal Larson, Janet Markelvits, David Markelvits, Carolyn Johnson with directors Mickie Schutz and Sue Sands.

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Stacy Bengs-Silverberg
Stacy Bengs has been a photojournalist at the Red Wing Republican Eagle since 2010. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism and art from the University of Minnesota.
(651) 301-7880
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