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Miller

Jonathan Miller watches a rehearsal at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. (photo by Jennifer Girard)


Sounds Good Choir

Jonathan Miller directs the combined Sounds Good! and Good Memories choirs at Fourth Presbyterian Church’s Buchanan Chapel in Chicago. (photo by Kelsey Cox)


Singing to heal and connect

Carolina alumnus founds Chicago-area choirs for adults with early-stage memory loss.

Jonathan Miller (M.A., Ph.D, musicology ’91) is positive that his choirs for older adults are helping those with early dementia.

“There are indications that singing in a choir can slow cognitive decline and sometimes even improve cognitive function in people with memory loss,” said Miller, founder with his wife, the Rev. Sandy Siegel Miller, of Sounds Good! Choir in his native Chicago.

Sounds Good! comprises more than 500 singers in 11 choirs around the Chicago area. Nine choirs are simply for adults ages 55 and older, but two, called Good Memories, are for people with early-stage memory loss and their care partners. Volunteers are interspersed among the choral members, helping singers stay on the right page and performing similar tasks.

Miller’s choirs meet for two 15-week sessions. Each session wraps up with a free public concert in the singers’ neighborhood. All choirs learn the same music, so they can also participate in a mammoth free concert at Fourth Presbyterian Church on the Magnificent Mile.

“It’s like loading a 747 to get everybody into place, but it’s magnificent and fun,” Miller said. “It’s this huge wall of sound, which for me as a conductor is a total blast.”

It’s fun for participants, too. Several choirs have coffee and snacks before and after rehearsals to foster friendships. Anyone may join. The oldest member is 93.

Miller cites a study that he said demonstrates that “isolation is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s hard to be isolated when you’re singing in a choir.”

In the early 2000s, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Institutes of Health funded a multiyear study of creativity in older people.

“People singing in choirs compared with the general public had fewer doctor visits, fewer falls, were less reliant on medication, were more active … and had a better outlook on life,” Miller said.

Miller began singing in fifth grade in the Chicago Children’s Choir and continued in choirs while majoring in math at the University of Chicago. Eventually, Miller knew music was his true calling.

He applied to Carolina’s graduate musicology program on a Chicago scholar’s recommendation.

“Chapel Hill had a great reputation,” he said. “The faculty were very, very strong.”

The College of Arts & Sciences awarded Miller a one-year Kenan Fellowship of full tuition plus $8,000, a godsend given that, as a non-music major as an undergrad, he needed serious catching up.

As a graduate student, Miller taught music appreciation to non-majors and sang in choirs. A treasured Carolina memory is when a British early-music specialist was brought in to teach Collegium choir members how to sing in Pythagorean tuning. “You can’t do that kind of thing everywhere,” Miller said.

After studying in Chapel Hill from 1986 to 1991, Miller returned to Chicago and, uncertain what to do, began selling ads for a computer magazine.

“I used the first couple of years of my extra income to bankroll Chicago a cappella,” an ensemble of professional singers from which he will retire in June as artistic director after 27 years.

Miller went on to work in music publishing for awhile, then started Sounds Good! in early 2016. Soon a friend invited him to Minneapolis to see a choir for older adults with memory loss, and Good Memories was born two years later.

The Millers’ program has been covered by NBC Nightly News, The Washington Post and Comcast in Chicago.

“After billions of dollars over numerous years, the drug companies haven’t been able to come up with anything reliable for treating dementia, but social interventions have been having an impact,” Miller said. “We are stretching older adults to do things musically that they didn’t think they could do, and there’s great joy and power in that.”

Editor’s note: Miller reports that in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, his choirs are doing online rehearsals through Facebook live and Zoom.

For more on Sounds Good!, visit soundsgoodchoir.org.

By Laura J. Toler ’76