Heather Donnelly’s voice rings brightly in the sunlit front room of the Bentley Assisted Living Facility in Branchville as she sings a welcome song with the members of her Generations class, the youngest of whom is only a year old, and the oldest are well into their midnineties. Each weekly 45minute session is designed to teach rhythm and musicality, but also to open up the important neural pathways that only music can activate.
Donnelly, the owner and director of Sing A Song NJ, based in Sparta, says that music builds connections that are vital for both developing and elderly brains. Sing A Song is a licensed Music Together franchise, which means that Donnelly and her staff undergo intensive training several times a year under the guidance of music therapists, neurologists and psychologists, and physicians.
“The kids are having fun but they’re really learning," she said. "Everything we do has a purpose and it will show up later on in their language and math skills. And for the adults, it’s about getting them engaged and helping them with recall. Some can’t remember much, but they can remember the words to songs they learned when they were young.”
That principle is evident as Donnelly leads a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame," with everyone counting those infamous strikes at the top of their lungs. The song selection for this day’s class also includes an upbeat remix of the John Denver classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and lots of drums, tambourines, bells, and rhythm sticks.
Bentley resident Miss Billie, who will be celebrating her 93rd birthday in November, said she looks forward to the musical visits with the children.
“I’m not a morning person,” she said, “But I just love coming downstairs for this. These little angels just make my week.”
Donnelly said that all neurological benefits aside, the connections that are formed between the toddlers and the seniors, who they call "grandfriends," is the most gratifying part of running the Generations program.
“Some of the residents don’t have anyone, but we see them bond with these young families, who sometimes come to visit even when we don’t have a class," Donnelly said. "I also think it teaches the children to have empathy for others and to be comfortable around the elderly.”
Sing A Song NJ is based in Sparta and offers Music Together classes, as well as acting, voice, and instrumental lessons and classes for all ages. For more information on pricing and registration for upcoming sessions, visit www.singasongnj.com or call (973) 4008719.