Oak Hammock at the University of Florida is a continuing care retirement community in Gainesville that promotes an intellectual and artistic lifestyle through various educational programs and activities offered to their residents. In 2004, Oak Hammock prepared to open its doors for the first time and immediately started planning activities for its future residents. Professor Ronald Burrichter and Dr. Brenda Smith, voice professors at the University of Florida School of Music, were contacted to act as consultants for the choral group they hoped to form. Nancy Green, the founding music director and conductor of the choir, worked with Burrichter and Smith to create a healthy singing sound for the group, now known as the Oak Hammock Singers.
Since 1996, Dr. Smith, a specialist in vocal pedagogy, has been at the forefront of research on the aging voice. There had been a widespread belief that once a person reached a certain age, the singing voice would no longer be useful as a performing instrument. The focus of Dr. Smith’s research has been to learn why the voice changed so drastically with age and whether or not there was a way to allow for a longer singing career. After working with the Oak Hammock Singers, Smith published the book Choral Pedagogy and the Older Singer, dedicated to Green and the Oak Hammock Singers, which details the voice in the aging process.
"Our work at Oak Hammock as consultants, voice builders and conductors has enhanced every aspect of our professional endeavors with singers of all ages,” says Smith. “Through research and practice, we have developed strategies that insure lifelong singing as an achievable goal for every human being.”
Currently, Professor Burrichter and Dr. Smith serve as music directors for the Oak Hammock Singers, conducting rehearsals and arranging music that suits the needs of older singers. Older singers do not wish to sing the same pieces that young singers do. It is difficult to find pieces that fit the collective voice of the older choir. For this reason, Burrichter arranges pieces in such a way that promotes healthy singing practices for “age and size appropriate” voices.
"What a rare opportunity it has been to find the magic of music in singers past the age of 55 through our experiences at Oak Hammock,” says Burrichter. “From our first experiences in assisting Nancy Green as she and Shirley Sutcliffe established the Oak Hammock Singers through each opportunity we share weekly as we move forward with the singers, the wonderful people at Oak Hammock and their insatiable desire to learn and grow remind us of the power of music to unite and elevate the human spirit.”
Music students from the University of Florida School of Music have become an integral part of the choral activities of the Oak Hammock Singers . There are a handful of choir members that have remained members since its start. Kirk McDonald is one of the founders of the choir. He and his wife, Gloria, have been very involved with the Oak Hammock Singers and have gotten to know Burrichter and Smith very well over the years. Wanting to show their appreciation, the McDonalds decided to give back in a tangible way. A generous donation by the couple to the UF School of Music was given to buy software and equipment that singers and vocal pedagogy students can use for research on the voice. This equipment will be used to study young singers’ voices as well as the aging voice and to give more insight on the science behind the voice, practice methods and healthy singing. This gift will allow students to see how one’s singing voice can grow with age rather than deteriorate if it is used appropriately over time.