Grant Simpson, left, and Annie Avery are two of the musicians participating in the Stories into Songs program that had roughly 70 Whitehorse seniors writing songs over the last year. (Christian Kuntz/Submitted)

Senior-songwriters are the new singer-songwriters

Whitehorse songwriting project focuses on fighting isolation among seniors

You’ve probably never heard a song like “Aging’s not for Sissies” but you’ll have your chance on March 19.

That’s when a group of 10 musicians will perform 11 songs written by roughly 70 Whitehorse seniors who participated in Stories into Songs over the last year.

The project is an initiative of Whitehorse Independent Theatre (WIT).

The impetus for it, said Grant Simpson, one of the musicians involved, was to fight loneliness and isolation among seniors.

“It’s about reaching out and trying to get people to come and then to actually share, in a group, some of the things on the minds of seniors,” he said.

The invitation was open for seniors to visit locations including the Yukon Transportation Museum, Whitehorse Public Library, Well Read Books, l’Association franco-yukonaise and the Whitehorse United Church.

There, songwriting circles were hosted by Arlin McFarlane, artistic director with WIT, Simpson and musician Annie Avery.

Donna Pendziwol-MacMillan, 62, attended a number of the events.

Pendziwol-MacMillan, who retired from a job with the Yukon government a year and a half ago, plays mandolin, and has been involved in the Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival.

Though participants didn’t share a whole lot about their musical backgrounds at the sessions, she said the range in abilities was broad. Musical experience was not required.

Pendziwol-MacMillan said the circles, especially one she attended at Mount Lorne, were like huge brainstorming sessions. Participants tossed out ideas and, with McFarlane’s help, tried to come up with lines that rhymed.

In the meantime, Simpson and Avery managed the music, which ranges from ballads and calypso tunes, to country beats and an anthem.

“It was just kind of like problem-solving,” she said. “Sharing and talking and giving little anecdotes.”

Even though some showed up with verses and even full songs already written, Simpson said no one participant drove anything. He said the process was highly collaborative among the groups of a dozen that usually came out.

“Sometimes there was more shyness and then some of them came in with guns ablaze,” he said.

“It was more like working the whole group and shaping (the songs) like sculptures.”

Simpson said it was interesting to see the themes and subject matter participants brought to the sessions.

“There were two kinds of concerns,” he said. “The big ones in life, and I don’t think people jumped on those. It was more of a personal view of things they were going through.”

Sometimes, he said, those were topics along the lines of “I’m standing in the doorway wondering what I came into this room for” (that one passed the brainstorming stage and made it into a full-fledged song), while others went deeper.

A lot of the seniors involved brought up the issue of how difficult it is to be a parent of adult children, while also looking after their own aging parents. The song that came out of that is called “How can I help you Mother?”

“That’s a real big thing in people’s lives in this generation, and mine too,” said Simpson, whose own mother is 93. She lives in Nanaimo, he said, and trying to remain connected via Whitehorse can be difficult. He worries about her.

There were also stories about how your health and body fail you, which is explored in “The Tango of Crones.”

Pendziwol-MacMillan agreed that some of the issues raised were difficult, but that participants wrote about those issues in different ways. There was a mix of moods among the songs, she said.

“Some of the them are about funny things like how do you cope with life as a senior. Having to wears cleats or losing your memory or all the appliances you have to wear. There was some humour in there.… Other stories were about loss and more touching emotional issues,” she said.

Bringing together rooms full of people who had been living with those individual thoughts was pretty cool, said Simpson. And it was something new for a lot of people.

“I think it’s something different instead of just going and playing cards,” said Pendziwol-MacMillan. “It’s just a different way to express yourself rather than going for a walk or going to the gym or going to aquafit.… This just touches on another way of self-expression.”

The band lineup is still being solidified but will include Simpson and Avery, as well as local musicians Nicole Edwards, Chuck Charlebois, Lillian Strauss, Rob Bergman and Elaine Shiman.

The performance will take place at The Old Fire Hall on March 19. Doors open at 5 p.m., with the performance beginning at 5:30 p.m. Admission is by donation.

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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