Young and old sing their way to friendship

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

''Singing in this group was the most American experience I've ever had. We came out of our ghettos and made friends with people from all walks of life.'' Jeanette Burack is speaking of the enriching experience she had as one of the senior members of an intergenerational chorus.

''But I'm most thrilled about this little girl, and our new special relationship,'' she continues. ''I love her and hope I'll watch her develop through life as her close friend or perhaps be the grandmother she's never had.''

This unique concept enables children ages 7 to 12 and adults ages 60 and older, of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, to discover how much they have in common through singing together. As developed by choral conductor Arlene Symons, now director of outreach at the Berkeley Carroll School of Park Slope, Brooklyn, N.Y., the process became the subject of ''Close Harmony,'' an Academy Award-winning documentary.

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To start off a chorus, Mrs. Symons first chooses music from Bach to rock, emphasizing the contrasting tastes of both ages. Then, working separately with each group, she teaches them snazzy arrangements that poke fun at their musical differences. Meanwhile, she initiates ongoing pen-pal exchanges between the children and their still unseen colleagues, purposely creating an air of excitement before their first joint rehearsal.

Her enchantment with the idea began as a music teacher in New York City schools, when she found occasions to invite nursing-home residents into her classes. And when she was conducting several senior choruses, she brought local schoolchildren to hear the elders.

In 1977, when leading one chorus of 5th and 6th graders and another of elders , she got the urge to combine them for a public concert.

''I recall at the time thinking only of the seniors and how fulfilling this would be for them,'' commented Mrs. Symons. ''I never realized the impact it might have on the children. So many of these kids were the casualties of divorce. And most were growing up without a close connection to grandparents.''

School regime necessitated that each group practice separately, uniting only for final rehearsals. During those segregated sessions, the children grew anxious about this seemingly phantom adult troupe, and one child suggested they write to them. Budding pen-pal relationships blossomed into enduring friendships. As they reached across life spans they found new interests, new cultures, and someone who cared.

Mrs. Symons's chorus is now a regular part of the New York City music scene. The interest in such programs is expanding both nationally and internationally.

Most recently she was asked to create an ensemble in Boston for a TV special. Garland Waller, the show's producer, feared the allotted six weeks might be too short to establish that special relationship between the two groups, as in ''Close Harmony.'' But just before the concert when they finally met, all apprehensions, shyness, and boundaries of race and age dissolved in a sea of hugs and laughter. They called to each other with shouts of recognition (''I knew that was you!''), then paired off, freely exchanging confidences and handmade gifts.

The audience sensed their excitement in the performance that followed. Afterward, chorus and audience mingled, and pen pals introduced their families.

Yet how did it affect their lives?

''I love singing, but thought it would be hard writing to older people because they're different and wouldn't understand us,'' confided Carrie Sorel, 11. ''Now I realize they're not different and have some of the same thoughts we do.''

''There was a closeness with other seniors as well as children,'' observed Everton Johnson, an 83-year-old foster grandparent and Sunday school teacher. ''This group brought out how well people can work together from all racial backgrounds.''

Isidro Tavtiva, a thoughtful 12-year-old boy, declared, ''I learned that older people can be really nice. And I think my pen pal learned from me that we're not all young street punks.''

''Getting to know a child through letters was especially interesting to me,'' expressed Gertrude Weinfeld, a professional proofreader. ''I was nervous the day I met my pen pal. I thought she wouldn't like me. But we loved each other from the start.''

Mrs. Symons seems to have single-handedly charted a relatively unexplored course to emerge a prominent leader in the co-generational field. She's regularly sought after for lectures and workshops throughout the country and is part of the United Nations Planning Commission to establish similar models in other parts of the world.

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