Young and old meet in harmony

The Toronto Star
March 23, 2002

Young and old meet in harmony
by Sarah Jane Growe

They’re becoming tessellations — “arrangements of minute parts closely fitted together” — and it’s happening right here, as we speak, to 50 seniors and students in the old city of York.

Joanne Indovina actually used tessellations to introduce the two generations last fall. Each of her Dennis Avenue Community School Grades 4 and 5 students drew puzzle patterns on a computer-enhanced colour photo, then cut out the parts of the self-portrait to send — in stages — to a pen pal partner at the nearby George Syme 55+ Centre.

“It was like creating a mystery,” says Indovina, whose class was asked to be part of a multi-faceted intergenerational mosaic coming to fruition this week.

The pen pal exchange put the first pieces in place.

Indovina taught the youngsters how to structure their initial letters, which included the first set of photo pieces. Their next letters, responding to the older pen pals, were supposed to be more spontaneous, the teacher says, but “a lot of them had a hard time with that.”

In fact, for Rebecca Gunness, the note from pen pal Dorothy O’Donnell was the first she had ever received from an “older person.” The 11-year-old has a cousin, 26, in England who writes regularly. “But I mean someone really, really beyond my age.” the girl explains.

O’Donnell, 69, just laughs. Her youngest granddaughter is a year older than Rebecca. “I write to Rebecca in the same way I talk to her,” she says, as the pair makes its way to the Dennis Avenue gym for the second practice of a 50-voice choir.

The intergenerational choir is the second layer of the mosaic.

The two sections have been rehearsing separately every week since November — the students singing the melody in the mornings and the seniors singing the back-up harmony in the afternoons.

But the full choir’s “deeply rich, resonant sound,” as school principal Gary Hopson describes it, has been heard only once before. That’s when the pen pals finally met in February, practised their songs and then visited over coffee and cookies.

“It was just like glue,” Indovina recalls.

Linking seniors and youngsters in song is not a new idea. Fran Goldman conducted choirs like this in local schools for nine years, until the funding ran dry three years ago.

“The music is the vehicle that bonds these generations,” she says.

And getting the groups in pairs to write to each other while they are singing together has been integral to the concept of linked choirs ever since it emerged out of New York 12 years ago, Goldman says.

“The pen pal component adds such a dimension of warmth and sharing and excitement to the experience of the singing,” Goldman explains. “There is only so much dialogue you can get going when they meet for 10 minutes.”

Goldman was asked to lead this particular choir by the director of the Avenue Road Arts School. Lola Rasminsky wanted the 50 linked voices to support the intergenerational art exhibit at BCE place, on display until April 5.

Art is the third layer of the mosaic.

It started with an anonymous donor giving Rasminsky money to stage art classes with older people in the old city of York. (“That’s the area of Toronto that interests him,” she says. He has declined to speak for himself, she says.)

Rasminsky sent two of the school’s teachers to work with Syme Centre seniors in a specially created weekly arts-project class last fall. They made a “Cloak Of Many Memories,” a collage reflecting their rich and varied histories. Theirs is the “past” part of the exhibit at BCE Place.

Then she thought she’d get young people to draw, too. Another art school teacher visited selected Dennis Avenue school students a few times last fall, to draw renditions of what they want to be when they grow up. Their visions, “What Children Dream Of,” is the “future” part of the display.

Then she added Goldman, who brought along the pen pal element.

The donor committed up to $10,000 to fund the expanded version of the project, and the writing/singing/art tessellation was born.

Indovina is grateful for Goldman’s musical instruction, which she wouldn’t be able to provide. “She’s not just teaching them songs. She’s teaching them how to breathe. She’s teaching them a technique for learning a whole different vocabulary.”