MORRISTOWN – It wasn’t easy for Joan Cupp to move from the home she’s lived in 90 years– the home she was born in – and head to a nursing home.
COVID restrictions were almost unbearable for the active piano teacher who had used music for more than six decades to meet friends and connect with people.
But Cupp figured she had a choice.
“I thought, ‘I can sit in my room and cry and have self pity, or I can get out and meet people and find out about them.’”
Cupp, 90, started a choir at Morristown Manor. It is the first of its kind for the facility, with its first concert Sept. 25.
Turning to music not only lifted her spirits, but also helped form friendships and brought joy to the residents and their families.
“To me, it’s such a blessing to see the smiles on their faces when they sing those songs,” said Cupp, through tears.
It’s that same love of music that she passed on to hundreds of students over her 65-year teaching career, where she’d have up to 50 students at a time from ages 5 to adult come into her home for 30-minute lessons.
Cupp held her lesson time with each student sacred, making her studio a refuge of peace and fun. She taught classical, gospel, pop, jazz and improvisation. She has also authored or co-authored music books and taught other music teachers in seminars through Schaum Publications.
But in 2021 it became evident she could physically no longer live in her home, and she made the decision with her daughter to move to a nursing facility last November.
Cupp remembers feeling sorry for herself. But lying in bed one morning, she heard a familiar voice that’s inspired her for decades.
“The Lord kind of said to me, ‘Joan, you’ve directed a lot of choirs in our life. Why don’t you start a choir?’”
The message was a clear inspiration to get up and meet her new community, offering that same level of love and attention she had provided her piano students to her neighbors inside Morristown Manor.
Cupp took her wheeled walker down the hallway, going door to door and asking if anyone could sing.
“It was so funny the reaction of those who couldn’t (sing),” she said. “They were quick to tell me.”
Still, she found seven fellow residents – all between the ages of 80 and 90 – and three staff members to join her new choir.
Many had sung in church choirs previously, and were grateful for the opportunity. The 10-member choir may be small, Cupp said, but they’re good.
They practice each Wednesday, and it’s an activity that has been a welcome addition to the community, said Jamie Roberts, assistant activities director.
“It’s been wonderful for the residents; those that aren’t in the choir come to listen each Wednesday for practice,” Roberts said. “They’re always asking, ‘When’s the next choir practice? Can we sit in?’”
Roberts sang a solo in “God Bless the USA,” and is pleased many of the activities are resuming at local nursing homes. Families were able to come Sept. 25 to watch the choir. Her own daughter, Madalynn, 13, was the flag bearer at the event.
From Bingo to Bible studies, painting classes to movies, Roberts said it’s been a blessing to see social activities resume after being so cautious about COVID-19.
“It’s just really hard to stay in their rooms, but it’s loosened up and we’re able to get back to activities and the residents just really thrive,” she said, adding that Cupp has been an inspirational director. “She’s a lovely lady; very sweet, very good at directing.”
The concert featured eight songs – a mix of gospel and patriotic pieces, as well as pop tunes and piano solos by Cupp. Her church, Wilkinson Church of Christ, contributed to the purchase of a new electric piano for the facility.
Cupp said she was grateful to see dozens of people attend.
“They had to keep going all over the place to get chairs for everyone, but I was pleased,” she said afterward. “I was very emotional. I just felt unworthy of all of that attention and I was very tired; I’d worked so hard to get it to that place, and the people just enjoyed it.”
Cupp’s daughter, Terri Gilliland, traveled from Illinois to join in the event.
“She can still do what her love is, she can still direct and play (piano) and that’s just – that is her life,” Gilland said. “Other than Jesus, that is her life and I was incredibly proud of her.”
Gilliland said the choir helped her mom out of an incredibly hard time. She was able to feel connected and feel like she has a place to serve at the nursing home.
“I think the whole key is being content,” Gilliland said. “We’ve talked a lot about being content in the areas that aren’t familiar to us.”
Her mark on Eastern Hancock County remains. Coming soon will be the installation of a decorative lighted piano at the Jane Ross Reeves Octagon House in Cupp’s honor.
Cupp still loves Shirley and her piano students, but she said she is grateful for this new chapter in her life.
“This will probably be the last big production I’ll do,” Cupp said. “It’s definitely been a ministry. I love the Lord with all my heart.”