By Eric Jennings, Music Educator and Rancher Choir Director
When I arrived at Rainbow Acres almost a year ago to head up the Music Program, I had no idea that over 30 Ranchers were interested in singing as a community chorus every week. That’s a lot of people! As with any chorus, singers are at every level of ability. Immediately, I felt the challenge to get to know each of the Ranchers well enough to pick music they could enjoy singing collectively.
At the same time, Rainbow Academy (the education arm of Rainbow Acres) was being implemented, with an emphasis on offering more educational choices. The goal of Rainbow Academy would be to establish a Music Program for adults with special needs that would teach the Ranchers the basics of music well enough to call themselves informed amateur musicians. Most importantly, these skills would be “permanent” skills, meaning each person would carry these abilities with them for the rest of their musical lives.
Amazing Grace and Holiday Songs
And, so my work began. The first order of business was to put together seven or eight hymns that the choir liked to sing. The hymns had to be good musically, as well as make good sense theologically. We had no trouble finding them! The Ranchers knew exactly which pieces they loved! They had been singing these hymns for many years, in one setting or another.
I was surprised to find that comprehension of the words was very challenging for many of them. They loved certain hymns – for example, Amazing Grace – but had little understanding of the meaning of the text. In addition to singing the words clearly, we spent a good deal of time discussing what each verse of each hymn meant. After all, singing the words from the heart is what it is all about! The Ranchers took very well to the challenge of learning their meaning.
The Star-Spangled Banner
By the fall, the Ranchers had mastered the hymns well enough to sing in a concert during Rainbow Acres’ Family & Friends Weekend, our annual event where families and friends of the Ranchers are invited for events at the ranch. As an encore, we sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was a special moment to see the Ranchers sing with such passion and patriotism. The Star-Spangled Banner is a hard piece to sing. It has a large range and the poetry is not easy to understand. But our Ranchers sing it with abandon. It is probably the favorite piece they sing.
Christmas came along quickly after that. I tried to help the Ranchers sing through every favorite holiday song and sacred hymn the season would allow. It was great fun and they sang with enthusiasm. It’s true that the Holiday Season has some of the most beloved music ever written. We sang just about every standard for groups that visited Rainbow Acres and at our annual Christmas Party for the Ranchers and staff. The chorus provided a lot of holiday spirit!
Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music
Then, in January, the Ranchers picked “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music” as their two favorite movies/musicals. So, we began learning the music to both, as well as adding new hymns to our performance repertoire. I added in opportunities for solos, too. Seeing the looks on the faces of the soloists as they did their parts told me the time was right for our soloists to shine. Watching them take turns with their solos was delightful and heartening to see!
In April, we sang our Spring Concert for the Board of Trustees and invited guests – and the Ranchers did exceptionally well. Soon after, we repeated the concert for an audience of adults with developmental disabilities, which was one of the more memorable nights of my life. Watching the blossoming connection between the Ranchers and their audience was incredible.
Performing for the Arizona Diamondbacks
Now it’s summer and we’re preparing for the Rainbow Acres Chorus to take the stage in a big way: by singing the National Anthem on July 20 to kick off the Arizona Diamondbacks game at Chase Stadium! It’s our chorus’s first public appearance. And we are thrilled that they are going to sing their very favorite piece! The Diamondbacks are hosting an “Inclusion Day” that recognizes adults with special needs, so this performance is especially appropriate. Supporters of Rainbow Acres are invited to join us for the performance and game.
Watch for footage of our Ranchers performing the National Anthem on our Facebook page. This performance is the culmination of a busy first year serving as Music Educator. I’ll keep you posted as we prepare for our next musical season at Rainbow Acres.