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Cornbread Harris +Augustana Open Circle Choir + VocalEssence = Musical Magic

June 16, 2015

cornbread-harris-400W.jpgJames Samuel Cornbread Harris Senior (whose son just happens to be Jimmy Jam) turned 88 this year, which connects directly to the number of keys on a piano. To celebrate, he’s performing a song he wrote with the Heritage Joyful Voices choir, conducted by VocalEssence’s Robert Graham and accompanied by John Jensen. The choir was created through a partnership between Augustana Open Circle and VocalEssence, which culminatedin a performance on Wednesday, May 27 at the Heritage Park Health and Wellness Center. You can view the video here.

Augustana Open Circle-Heritage Park is part of a new VocalEssence community engagement program called Vintage Voices, a new choral program that integrates the arts into the lives of older adults by fostering the creation of choirs in assisted living communities and senior centers. Choir members (including Mr. Harris) were first interviewed by VocalEssence members to determine musical preferences, singing experience and vocal types. A program was then devised and rehearsals began.

Songs were rehearsed rigorously for 12 weeks, and members learned to sing harmony and gain confidence as performers. Musicians like Harris and singers are pleased to be able to share their talents with the group and wider audiences. Harris wrote his song Put the World Back Together after tiring of news stories about the violence and cruelty people inflict on each other. “We were put on earth to take care of the world and benefit from it. We need to put the world back together before it falls apart,” he says.

Heritage Joyful Voices came about through a connection with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts after a training session hosted there by Augustana Open Circle Director Gail Skoglund. The training focused on working with older adults with conditions like Alzheimer’s. Because “music is magic,” Skoglund says, “choir members have the ability to transcend labels that are too often used by others when referring to older adults.”

Augustana Care’s philosophy is rooted in the notion that older adults are undervalued in our communities, as they bring years of experience and enormous talent to our communities.” They tend to be seen as people who may have memory issues or other conditions,” says Skoglund. “The choir allows them to be seen as the talented individuals that they are.”

Augustana Care resident Evangeline Peterson agrees. A former teacher and librarian at Minnehaha Academy, Peterson was serenaded by former student and VocalEssence Director Phillip Brunelle when she turned 100 a few years ago. Though not a member of the choir, she still enjoys listening to music and is a great fan of Brunelle’s. Peterson hopes the concert will help audiences to see older adults in a new, more positive light.

For more information about Augustana Open Circle, please visit

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board operating support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund, and a grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation Minnesota. Special thanks also go to Alfred P. & Ann M. Moore.

About Augustana Open Circle

Augustana Open Circle’s adult day services help people with changing physical, cognitive and/or social abilities live more fully and enjoy authentic connections with others in structured, nurturing settings. Members develop new friendships and strengthen their abilities to remain vital in the larger community.

Individuals can attend one of the centers two to five days a week where they are in an environment that enables them to thrive. With locations in Hopkins, Apple Valley and at Heritage Park Senior Services Center in Minneapolis, each center offers programs, recreation, personal care, respite, health monitoring and social connections. At Augustana Open Circle, we respect each person’s journey as unique and are honored to be part of it. Visit to learn more.

About VocalEssence

Called “one of the irreplaceable music ensembles of our time” by National Endowment for the Arts former chairman Dana Gioia,VocalEssence was founded by Philip Brunelle in 1969.

VocalEssence presents an annual series of concerts exploring the world of voices and instruments in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The 32-voice VocalEssence ensemble singers are the professional core of the larger 130-voice VocalEssence Chorus. 

“Expect the unexpected” has long been Brunelle’s personal mantra, and it shows in a wide range of musical styles as varied as opera, oratorio, jazz, Broadway and newly commissioned contemporary works.