Age is just a number and it’s clear to see Bill Yates and Nola Neas live their lives in accordance with that motto.
In fact, you’ll probably hear them before you see them, happily singing every word of Adele’s song Hello as they walk around their Auckland retirement village.
The married pair’s musical repertoire might surprise you. It also includes boy band One Direction, hits from Michael Jackson and a bit of Kiwi rock with Dragon. And they’ve even toured across New Zealand.
As founding members of the New Zealand Young@Heart singing chorus, the sprightly couple – along with the 30 other members – are challenging New Zealand’s seniors to turn age on its head.
“You don't expect old people to sing the latest pop and rock songs,” explains Bill (84). “We are 70 to 80 years of age and you certainly don’t expect us to be touring with an American group singing songs about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll!”
Young@Heart originally began in Massachusetts in the US in the 1980s under a young man named Bob Cilman. A documentary was made about the group and they started touring around the world.
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It was on their tour to New Zealand in 2010 that saw “the opportunity of a lifetime” fall into this couple’s laps.
“We saw the documentary about them,” explains Nola (81). “I just heard the tail end of an advertisement saying they were coming to New Zealand and were holding auditions, and I turned to Bill and said, ‘We have to find a way to be involved in that! How do we do that?’”
“She rang everybody to find out,” Bill laughs, detailing Nola’s perseverance.
As it turned out, the American chorus needed five members to sing with them on their tour around New Zealand. So Bill and Nola auditioned.
“I auditioned with Don't Cry for Me Argentina and that was nothing like the music Bob gave us to sing,” Nola giggles.
The pair were accepted and began a gruelling schedule of preparing for their first-ever tour.
“We had to learn 40 songs, which were to be performed in six weeks,” recalls Bill.
With the help of musical director Chris Bevan, the five members of the New Zealand cohort took to the stage and “fitted in seamlessly”, says Nola.
“It really was the experience of a lifetime.”
The couple were hooked. At the end of the tour, Bill and Nola were given the challenge to start up a New Zealand chapter, and so began the New Zealand Young@Heart in 2012. After recruiting and rehearsing, they now they put on their own New Zealand shows.
“Our objective is to bridge the generational gap – old people performing for young people,” says Bill.
“One of the comments we quite often get when we approach people to join the group is, ‘I’ve got hearing aids and I can’t hear!’ But half the chorus has hearing aids. Or it’s, ‘My voice has gone.’ Well, the songs are tailored to suit our voices and we build each other up.”
Clearly, there’s no room for excuses with these two.
With their 60th wedding anniversary coming up this April, Bill and Nola – who met in the lost property department at the former National Airways Corporation, now known as Air New Zealand – don’t plan to slow down with the singing.
“You think I’m joking, but it’s true, I found him in the lost property,” Nola laughs.
“Our family has learned not to be surprised at what we do,” she says.
“Singing is stimulating, invigorating, full of soul and satisfying. It’s always been something we've done, Bill since his school days and me from the girls’ choir at Hutt Valley High school. And I’ve done shows and I was a ballet dancer,” she says.
“We look at it as a challenge,” adds Bill. “I’ve always said I can’t sing. In fact, I still say that.”
“Oh, he beats himself down more than he should with regard to his singing ability,” Nola retorts. “I’d give him an eight out of 10.”
WATCH: NZ Young@Heart choir perform a party rock medley
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