SOUNDS GOOD: Chicago’s Jonathan Miller is chazzan at two synagogues, music director of Chicago a cappella, and leader of a choir for those in early stages of dementia

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Jonathan Miller’s own “sound of music” won’t win any Grammys, and likely won’t be played on oldies outlets 50 years from now or classic music purveyors 250 years hence.

Jonathan Miller in front of Congregation Rodfei Zedek (photo by Bill Burlingham).

But the special choir Hyde Park native Miller conducts on a regular basis brings sweet melody to his ears and, more importantly, to his Jewish heart. He is practicing a kind of musical tikkun olam when he directs singers in early stages of dementia to perform as a group. In 21st century medical practice, the mind is still harder to cure than the body, yet the musically-trained Miller is an adept therapist for what his singers crave.

The founder a quarter-century ago of Chicago a cappella and its present music director, Miller has extended his maestro’s talents to the Good Memories choir.

Miller with actress Dorothy Hancock at a Good Memories concert. She sang with the choir at its first session (photo by Christopher Walljasper).

Participants who sang regularly, taking pride in their performances, do not have to retire as shut-ins just because they have suffered the onset of memory loss. Nor do others who are similarly afflicted have to shy away from extending themselves if they start out inexperienced and off-key.  Pride and satisfaction are gleaned from both ends of the conductor-singer relationship.

“I’ve been compelled and impressed before, but never have I been grabbed by the scruff of the neck and shaken as this,” he said of the concept of his unique choir.

Good Memories is part of Sounds Good! Choirs. Miller also conducts a choir for 55-and-over amateur singers. Some 400 singers overall, including by Miller’s estimation between 75 and 100 Jews, participate in at least seven Sounds Good! Choirs.  All his decades of musical training make Sounds Good! a comfortable fit for Miller.

But directing singers with early-stage dementia was uncharted ground for both Miller and wife Sandy, who serves as program director.

Miller traveled to Poland to do research for a Chicago a cappella program. He was chazzan for Shavuot services at Beit Centrum Ki Tov synagogue in downtown Warsaw. He is in the back row, third from left. The photo was taken in the room that is used “Italian style,” first as a house of worship and then as a place for lunch right afterward.

Soon after beginning Sounds Good!, Miller attended a music conference in the Twin Cities. There, a friend informed him about a choir for early-dementia suffers and their care partners. He witnessed a performance.

“Sandy and I were absolutely bowled over by what we saw,” Miller said. “We literally cried all day.”

Inspired, Miller opted to start his own special choir. Starting last fall, he and associates raised $100,000. Good Memories became an affiliate of the Giving Voice Initiative. This worldwide movement brings together people with Alzheimer’s and their care partners to sing in choruses that foster joy, well-being, purpose and community understanding.

For the governing philosophy of his choirs, Miller cited a classic axiom from Judaism: “Never judge another person unless you’ve been in his position…If there’s a guiding principle as to how we treat people with memory loss, that’s as good as position as any. I don’t have memory loss. All I can do is have a compassionate heart to whatever they are dealing with. If I’m following that wisdom, then I feel I’m oriented toward some kind of true north.”

Participants in the 40-person group are largely drawn from patients in the cognitive neurology department and Alzheimer’s Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

“Word of mouth has always been the biggest recruiting tool for all choirs,” Miller said.

Miller leading the Good Memories Choir.

The Good Memories choir typically practices a repertoire of music people already know, such as a medley from “Oklahoma.”

Sufferers of early-stage memory loss register with their care partner as a pair. “We target people living at home because they’re the most socially isolated,” Miller said.

Then there are volunteers, some of whom also sing in the Sounds Good! regular choirs, often placed next to memory-loss singers who perform in the same vocal range, better to shore them up and give them confidence.

“What volunteers do is a lot of watching,” Miller said. “They are unbelievably sensitive people, watching to see who needs a little extra help. When it becomes clear that someone with memory loss is struggling a bit, the volunteer will slide in next to them.”

Interestingly, singing plays to the early-stage sufferers’ mental strengths – especially those who have previously sung in choirs. “The part of the brain where music and lyrics are stored is the last to go,” said Miller.

Prepping for a projected three concerts a year, Miller conducts a weekly rehearsal at the Fourth Presbyterian Church downtown. The group gathers for socialization and kibitzing with coffee and snacks at 9:30 a.m. before Miller gets them going at 10 a.m. 

Whether in the Good Memories or Sounds Good! choirs, singers benefit from a Miller conducting style that is all benevolence and never despotic.

“I never single out an individual singer for making a mistake. Never shame anyone. People think I hear individual voices. My job is to teach music as cleanly and accurately as I can.

Miller giving a hug to a member of the choir.

“I do make sure I do a lot of eye contact. I learn not to say, ‘Remember what we did last week.’ There are more compassionate ways to say, ‘Let’s go over this passage.’  You have to be completely present with memory loss. Our challenge as human beings is being present in the moment.  You have to have a heightened level of understanding.

“I like to do small building blocks really, really well and then stitch them all together. Rehearsing, I’ll work on a 30-to-45-second part. If we’re doing ‘Hello Dolly,’ we’re all looking at the alto part. I’ll say it three or four times, to make sure all are on the same page.  I have to catch myself and temper my desire to get music learned quickly to get people comfortable.”

Like an athlete, Miller is a “big stickler” for rhythm.  Everything has its place in the flow of the performance. Having sung in choirs for decades, he has been precisely where his singers try to go.

“I emphasize the right place in the measure,” he said.   “We talk a lot about breathing.  We spend the first 10-15 minutes on vocal technique.  If I notice half the choir is slouching, I’ll say raise your chest.

“Our job is to transmit emotion to the audience.  Tolstoy defines art as the transfer of emotion from one person to another. I’ve sung in thousands of concerts, and I am so emotional beyond anything that I have ever known.  I’m on the verge of crying.”

Miller brings that same passion to his work as a part-time clergyman. He serves as a High Holiday cantor at Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Hyde Park and a member of the davening team at West Suburban Temple Har Zion in River Forest.

“My job as a chazzan is not to impress people; my job is to help people pray. In a similar way, the choir is to have the audience possess emotion in every song we’re singing.”

Directing Good Memories is certainly not the cap to Miller’s career – just a shining highlight.  A graduate of Chicago public schools, he studied mathematics at the University of Chicago, then went on for a doctorate in historical musicology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Miller began composing choral music in 1998. His works have been sung at major venues, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Pentagon.

Miller has been the leader of Chicago a cappella since he founded the group in 1993. He is the group’s original low bass and music director. “None of the current roster of singers identifies as Jewish, but we have a strong Jewish presence among the board and audience,” Miller said.

Chicago a cappella has performed hundreds of concerts in Chicago. On tour, the group has appeared in 13 American states and in Mexico.  The ensemble has been heard frequently on WFMT-Radio and through broadcasts distributed by American Public Media, including the nationally-syndicated “Performance Today.” The ensemble has produced nine CD recordings of music ranging from Renaissance masses to contemporary works.

In doing research for its “Polish Splendor” program, Miller traveled to Poland two years ago to get a sense of Jewish life in the country today.

“So many people are joining Jewish communities who were converts,” Miller said. “People are coming out of the woodwork. Maybe they had a Jewish grandparent.  The Jewish community is re-establishing itself.”

He was referred to a small synagogue in downtown Warsaw. Miller said the layout was “Italian-style, with one long room – the bimah at one end, an area for Kiddush and socializing at the other.” He volunteered to conduct Shabbat morning services.

The Shavuot timing was right for Miller – “it was yahrzeit for my dad,” he said. “I sang the Hallel portion of the service after having downloaded the melodies the night before on my computer.”

Resurgent nationalism and some conservatives’ effort to downplay Polish involvement in the Holocaust did not seem to put a damper on the renaissance Miller noticed. He called the Jewish museum in downtown Warsaw “extraordinary…amazing.”  He loved Cracow, a “really cool university town.” But most striking were the Jewish music festivals staged by some 50 rural villages that had long been abandoned by Jews.

“They are finding a way for the people in the villages to come to grips with their past,” Miller said. “In one, the mayor interviewed the oldest residents to find out what it was like with Jews living there. There was a roving troupe of young actors and musicians putting on plays in Polish about old Jewish merchants. They were trying to honor this part of their heritage. The old synagogue and mikvah building were still there.”

The horror of the Holocaust was brought home to him when he was shown a series of flats occupied by Jews in 1943. Then, one day, they were all gone, whisked away to their doom. “There was no one left to say kaddish for them,” Miller said he was told.

Thus landing back on Chicago soil after the trip was welcome, in time to help grow Sounds Good! and, in turn, Good Memories.

“The beauty is it doesn’t take very long to see how we roll along,” Miller said.  “How quickly this sense of community jells.”

3 Comments on "SOUNDS GOOD: Chicago’s Jonathan Miller is chazzan at two synagogues, music director of Chicago a cappella, and leader of a choir for those in early stages of dementia"

  1. Betsy Bennett | June 6, 2019 at 11:46 pm | Reply

    Jonathan is the heart and soul of Sounds Good. He gets a lot of support, inspiration and
    input from his sweet wife, Sandy. Who, by the way, makes a ton of her delicious scones for our makeup day. They are a team. All of my song mates agree that belonging to Jonathan’s choir is about as good as it gets. We love our rehearsals under his direction. And over time, we have formed new friendships as well. Two of my dear friends are going to check out our summer program, in Hinsdale, next week. I think that after one practice, they will be hooked. I am!!!

  2. Iris H Rudnick | June 7, 2019 at 12:56 am | Reply

    I am a member of the Evanston Sounds Good Choir and volunteer with Good Memories. It is an honor and a privilege to have Jonathan as our director. His compassion for all, his knowledge of music and conducting are a gift to all who are fortunate to be involved in either choir. Your comment of musical tikkun olam is right on target! Thank you for your recognition of Jonathan!

  3. Janis O'Neill | June 7, 2019 at 3:29 pm | Reply

    You do not have to be Jewish to love Jonathan, and value his unique gifts !

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