For all his life, he's carried a name famous in Minnesota music circles, but he's always considered himself more aficionado than performer. Now, at 91, Stuart MacPhail is helping create the state's newest singing group, all because of what he calls his "rusty pipes."
The ensemble, just getting started at the Friendship Village retirement community in Bloomington, might perform under his suggested name: Sing for Your Life!
MacPhail is the last surviving child of William S. MacPhail, who in 1907 opened a violin school in downtown Minneapolis. For more than a century, the school has taught thousands of students to play nearly every instrument and develop skills that range from singing, public speaking and piano tuning to dancing, baton twirling and music therapy.
Stuart MacPhail worked at his dad's school for about 15 years, mostly in administrative and bookkeeping jobs, before entering the steel business. He played clarinet in a jazz band in college and sang in the all-male Minneapolis Apollo Chorus, which his father led for 22 years. He remains a lifetime board member of the MacPhail Center for the Arts, which last year opened its new building near the Guthrie Theater.
Late last year, he "casually mentioned" to board colleague Patty Murphy that "I kind of think I would like to study voice again" because his speaking and singing had lost punch and resonance. But he didn't want to drive downtown for weekly lessons or pay a teacher to come to Bloomington for private instruction.
With help from MacPhail Center and Friendship Village, his notion crescendoed into a series of group lessons not only for him, but for friends and neighbors at the retirement complex, home to about 375 residents.
A respiratory workout
At an introductory class in April, he volunteered to stand before other residents as a guinea pig for MacPhail instructor Jeanie Brindley-Barnett. Mixing homespun Alabama humor with anatomy lessons and singing technique, she had her student puffing syllables such ("hoo-hoo-HOO" and" hoo-hoo-HAH"), rolling his shoulders and breathing oh-so-deeply.
"Fill up and get fat. Blow out and get flat," she directed. "A singer doesn't blow out all at once."
For the wiry but frail MacPhail, it was a respiratory workout.
"Am I going too fast?" she asked. "Are you going nuts?"
"A little," MacPhail said. "Is my head hanging from the ceiling or sitting on my neck?"
Minutes later, he earned a hug from his teacher.
"Oh, man, you got it, baby," she beamed. "You've got all this energy in your force field. ... Your voice is beautiful."
"I've been waiting for somebody to tell me that," he said.
In later lessons, Brindley-Barnett led scores of her elderly students in voice exercises, elocution and sing-alongs, including basic two-part harmony. She often promoted good posture: "We sing from our whole body. ... We engage the butt."
Such exercises can help older people restore their voices because "as we get older, the muscles that support our voice get flabby," she said.
Karen Lloyd, who heads wellness programs at Friendship Village, said a previous chorus disbanded after dwindling from 22 members to six. She champions MacPhail's effort as a way of moving senior recreation programs far beyond "cupcakes and bingo." She advocates pursuing balanced well-being -- physical, social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual and vocational activities. About 300 residents already take exercise classes, but music, she said, incorporates "more of those six things than anything else we do."
Paul Babcock, MacPhail Center's executive vice president, said music can help older people "keep connectivity" within the brain and with other people: "The memory that music triggers is pretty amazing," he said. "The music we hear in our late teens is among the most powerful memories we have."
Seventy to 80 people have attended the first three lessons and Lloyd figures a chorus of about 40 would allow four-part harmony plus a cushion for vacations, illness, family activities and, given the group's advanced ages, permanent absences.
Brindley-Barnett said the chorus might be ready to perform in November for a conference of the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts in Minneapolis, showing what can be done by enthusiastic elderly singers.
As adult education partnership coordinator, she is part of MacPhail Center's effort to spread its teaching throughout the Twin Cities area instead of relying only on people driving downtown. Babcock said the school has 48 community partnerships, including three with retirement communities. Fees, contributions and occasional grants help pay for such programs. MacPhail's outreach at Friendship Village this year is about $7,500.
Marian Fronk, 81, left a recent group lesson at Friendship Village holding hands with husband Bob, 85. She used to sing in the Roosevelt High School chorus in Minneapolis and in church choirs and might be interested in the Friendship Village chorus, "but one has to get one's voice back."
Earl Mosiman, 88, is eager to get the group started, too. He learned music from his mother, a piano teacher, and in the Navy sang in the Great Lakes Naval Training Center's chorus. For his family, singing "has been a part of our life. It makes us feel good."
Charlotte Beattie, 86, said she likes the emphasis on deep breathing. She gave up singing in the former choir "because I couldn't reach the high notes."
MacPhail appears mildly surprised at the strong response to the singing program. And he intends to keep his baritone voice in the mix. Near the end of his demo lesson with Brindley-Barnett, he sang an a capella passage from "Finlandia" by Sibelius.
"That," he said, "was my supreme effort." He said later that he thought his father, who died in 1962, would have been quite pleased by the entire program. Lloyd told the group that by clearing out their own rusty pipes, "you're sitting in Stuart MacPhail's dream."
Dan Wascoe is a retired Star Tribune reporter.