Varadha Taggarse, a senior at BASIS Oro Valley, knows music has a special way of bringing people together.
So in the midst of the pandemic, when she learned about seniors experiencing isolation and loneliness the 17-year-old felt a singalong style class was in order.
"When I was in fifth grade... I would perform in nursing homes," she says. "I could see how music kind of brings people together, at least I think it does and it makes people happy."
Taggarse began volunteering in early 2020 with Televëda, a Phoenix-based company co-founded by her brother. The platform livestreams classes to people 65 and over to help build community and alleviate social isolation. At first Taggarse mostly focused on helping with the technical side of the platform with audio and visual set up. She also sat in on classes and observed other instructors lead seniors from different parts of the country in exercise classes and group games and activities.
"When COVID hit in March... I remember seeing some of the participants saying that their retirement communities were shut down so they couldn't go to all the facilities that the retirement housing provides and that they were super lonely and things like that," Taggarse says. "So then I thought, well what if I try do a class on my own and that way I could be more involved with the community instead of just helping on the side."
She saw Televëda didn't offer any classes related to music, one of her passions, so she pitched her idea for a group singalong class which was well-received. It took a month of testing to get the class ready for launch during which Taggarse learned what kinds of songs participants liked and what colors and fonts to use to make her lyrics easily readable for everyone.
"It was rough the first month because I had no idea how to do it and I had to figure everything out so it was definitely constructive criticism for the testing period, but then once I started the class I just remember people saying 'thank you' and being really happy about it," she says.
Class favorites were hits from the 30s through the 60s from artists like Connie Francis, Burl Ives and The Beatles, Taggarse says.
She saw how so many people love "You Are My Sunshine," the way that "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" made people want to stand up and move and how "Tennesee Waltz" by Patti Page and other familiar songs had a special way of helping a woman with Alzheimer's open up and share old memories.
"When that would play she would start telling me about how when she was a teenager she used to go out with her friends and they would all go dancing and things like that," Taggarse says. "I just thought it was really interesting how I couldn't have a conversation with her without music, but it came so naturally to her when the music was playing and she could sing all the lyrics and everything and I thought that was really amazing."
While Taggarse was familiar with some of the artists from these different time periods she says she learned about so many other musicians and songs which have become some of her favorites. She's even recommended some to friends.
"There's some songs that are just enjoyed by everybody which I think is really cool," she says.
The experience has made her think about what songs from her own generation are going to stand the test of time.
"I was thinking to myself when I'm older, if I'm in my 70s and someone my age decides to do a singalong how awful would that be? What would we even listen to? Like 'Shawty like a Melody'? What are we going to do? You can't even sing along to stuff like that. It would be horrible," she says. "The songs (from older generations) were so pure and innocent."
Since October, Taggarse has had to take a behind-the-scenes role with the weekly class to focus on her college applications. Since then another group has been leading the class, but she helps put together the slides, run the platform during class time and shares her expert tips for hosting a successful singalong.
It's a role she's happy to be part of knowing that her efforts are continuing to bring a little joy to others.
"I know with COVID at least I was super lonely, I don't even know how it would feel to be in a retirement home and not being able to have people come into your house because I still have my parents with me, but I did get concerned that there are people on the Televëda platform and if I can make them a bit happier with one song then that was enough for me to feel that maybe they weren't so lonely."