Janelle Miller stood in front of 20 seated choir members and raised her arms as the opening melodies from The Beatles’ song “All You Need Is Love” filled Immanuel Village’s community room. The choir was practicing for its Summer Music Series concert, “Music of the ’60s.” The show featured selections from the legendary British invasion band and Grammy-winning folk singer John Denver.
Piano accompanist Peggy Schmitz kept time with Janelle, Immanuel’s music program specialist, as she led the singers through the lyrics. Around them hung large posters of the famous musicians. From the ceiling, vinyl album décor adorned with titles like “Here Comes the Sun” and “Country Roads” twisted languidly in circles.
“Nothin’ you can sing that can’t be sung,” the choir sang. “All you need is love … love is all you need.”
For more than 10 years, Janelle has helped bring music to the halls of Immanuel’s communities. Music has been a big part of her life. She taught all levels of music from elementary school through college. After she retired, she was courted to become Immanuel’s first music specialist.
“Music is eternal,” Janelle said. “People can do music even when they can’t do anything else. If they’ve ever sung, they can still sing. It might not be like they want to, but they can still do it.”
The singers responded to Janelle’s instructions as she tapped her foot to the beat. The choir members were just as invested in these moments as she. One singer nodded along as the choir transitioned from “Get By With a Little Help From My Friends” to John Lennon’s iconic hit, “Imagine.”
No matter the song, Janelle said the music makes a difference in the residents’ lives. She referred to Karen and Gene Buchholz, who had moved from Alaska to Immanuel Village in Omaha, Nebraska. The couple had been music teachers, and both joined the choir.
Less than a year after moving, however, Gene passed away. The “Music of the ’60s” performance was dedicated to his memory.
“After he passed, Karen said to me, ‘I will give the memorials to the music ministry’ because that was Gene’s favorite thing – singing in the choir,” Janelle said. “Later, when we decided we would all wear tie-dyed shirts (for the concert) … Karen said, ‘I’ll buy them.’ She bought the shirts for the whole choir.”
The Immanuel Village choir is one of four vocal choirs, three ladies' groups, and three chime choirs Janelle works with at various Immanuel communities. She said the performance selections always vary from community to community.
For example, the choir at Pacific Springs Village in Omaha just finished its performance of “Love Songs of the Decades.” The choir at Trinity Village in Papillion, Nebraska, is currently working on selections from the famous musical “My Fair Lady.” The choir at The Landing in Lincoln, Nebraska, is preparing for its upcoming concert featuring selections from Broadway hits.
“I work hard to make sure the music fits the group,” Janelle said. “That’s why I never do the same thing in other places. I probably wouldn’t do this (The Beatles/John Denver) program at another community.”
Choir participants range in age from 60s to 90s, though there have been a few centenarian members. Some reminisced about being fans of The Beatles in the 1950s and '60s. The average age of most choir participants is in the 80s, Janelle said. But when it comes to the fun and excitement of the choirs, age is just a number.
Harold Schmidt, a 95-year-old Immanuel Village resident, was an educator in the U.S. and Hong Kong, China, for 20 years before becoming a pastor. For him, music has always been an important part of his life.
“About two weeks after I moved in, I walked past the community room, and the choir was about to begin,” he said. “Since music has been my hobby, I thought this was one thing I ought to get into.”
Harold said he walked into practice expecting to sing traditional hymns. Instead, he was handed a booklet featuring selections from the Broadway musical “South Pacific.” From that moment, he knew this was no ordinary community choir.
“We’ve done a number of things the last two years that a high school choir, or even a college choir, would find challenging,” he said. “This is not simple stuff for people who are 80 or 90 years old, and it’s just incredible. I’ve never had a music experience like this. It’s like a bonus, being in independent living and being (involved in) something I really love.”
Harold is one of three men in the Immanuel choir. At the Summer Music Series practice, he listened intently as Janelle made a few notes after the choir concluded The Beatles portion of the show. Some members bantered back and forth, and, after a couple of minutes, Janelle raised her arms again, and the John Denver tribute began.
“Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong,” the choir crooned.
Jim Ely, a 72-year-old Immanuel Village resident, said his favorite songs from the show were The Beatles’ “Yesterday” and John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.”
“I’ve always liked The Beatles; before this, I was never as big of a John Denver fan,” he chuckled. “But I’ve gotten into it. I’ve become much more of a fan by singing his songs than I used to be listening to them.”
A former credit union branch manager in Omaha, he and his wife, Linda, were members of their church choir for many years. When the couple moved into Immanuel Village a little over a year ago, they decided joining the community’s choir would be fun.
“The one thing I know will be in Heaven is music,” he said. “I have always liked music. The sound when you get everybody together is really cool. It’s fun. I’ve never been a great one for all the singing parts, but this seems to flow. And the overall sound, I love it when it all comes together.”
Later that night, other Immanuel Village residents, friends and family members gathered to watch – and sing along with – the choir’s big performance. Afterward, there was refreshments and camaraderie. No matter the community, the Immanuel music programs are open for any resident to join. Some of the choirs also have participants who aren’t residents. The more, the merrier, Janelle said.
“People find out about it through word-of-mouth from residents – friends, family – we encourage them because so many churches don’t have choirs anymore, and people miss singing,” she said.
When it comes to Immanuel’s music programs, all you need is love.
“It’s for everybody,” Janelle said. “We don’t ask questions; we say if you want to sing, come along.”