Belmont students turn The Heritage seniors’ life stories into songs

Belmont students turn The Heritage seniors’ life stories into songs

Photo: In back, from left – Professor James Tealy, Taylor Zebracki, Corinne McKnight; In front, from left – Ryan Wagner, Emily Falvey, Mitchell McLaughlin


The place is Central London, near the beginning of World War II.

A six-year old girl living with her family is sent to live in the countryside to escape Germany’s sustained bombing attacks on the city. The girl, afraid and unable to understand why she was sent away, develops severe speech problems that keep her silent much of the time. She goes back to London where her best friend is killed in a bombing raid. Several years later she meets an American soldier. The two marry, move to the United States and have six kids together.

Belmont University students heard this story and many more Wednesday morning at the Heritage at Brentwood, a local senior living community.

These students are a part of a commercial songwriting class. They had come to The Heritage as part of Make Music Day, an annual international celebration of all things musical.

They were there to hear some of the residents’ stories and then turn those stories into songs. The students and The Heritage residents met for breakfast for a little more than an hour at 9 a.m. The students then went back to Belmont and wrote songs based on their conversations. At 7 p.m. they returned to The Heritage and performed a concert of those songs.

The little girl in London is Terry MacDonald. Now in her 80s, MacDonald spoke Wednesday morning with Belmont student Taylor Zebracki.

“I married the only boyfriend I ever had,” MacDonald said, recounting the tale of how she met her future husband, John, at a London dance hall.

The war had recently ended and the dance hall and attention from the soldier were welcome respites from the horrors of previous years.

“I could do the best jitterbug you ever saw,” MacDonald said.

John asked Terry out. Terry had him over to the house for tea and there Terry’s father gave the pair permission to go to the movies together. They never looked back.

Apparently John did not so much propose as simply express his intentions.

“I guess I was about 16,” Terry recalled. “He said, you know I’m gonna marry you.”

Terry was happy to oblige him and before too long John was an international financier, and he and Terry were criss-crossing the globe with their six children. They lived in places such as Italy and Scotland, to name a few.

Taylor Zebracki talking to Terry MacDonald at The Heritage at Brentwood Wednesday morning.

“What was the most romantic thing your husband ever did for you?” Taylor asked.

“Our whole marriage was romantic,” Terry said. She and John had been married for just under 50 years when he died at the age of 68 in 2000.

“We were best friends,” she said.

Taylor asked another question: “If you gave me advice on relationships and marriage what would it be?”

“Find somebody that feels the way you do,” she said.

A few minutes later Taylor said, “I think I have an idea of what I want to write about.”

Down the breakfast table a little bit Ryan Wagner was interviewing Mary Lou Fleck. Like MacDonald, Fleck had traveled a lot in her lifetime.

She and her husband, Wayne, who was interviewed by another student, used to lead children’s choir groups on concert tours of Europe. They took groups to Belgium, Germany, and even got to hold a concert at St. Paul’s Cathedral in England.

“It was amazing how many people came out to hear them,” Fleck said.

The travel expanded Fleck’s horizons. Especially valuable was the interaction she had with the people she met on her journeys.

“When you stay in homes you learn more about the people than when you stay in hotels,” she said.

Mary Lou and Wayne met due to a bitter disappointment. Wayne, a drummer, was going to be part of a touring company of “South Pacific,” but the plans fell through. As a result, he went to a church camp instead. Also at that church camp was Mary Lou.

“I think I want to write a song about that,” Wagner said. He thought it was amazing how such a huge letdown could then lead to something so great. The Flecks have been married for 57 years.

Also on hand Tuesday was James Tealy. Tealy teaches the commercial songwriting class that the students are enrolled in at the Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business at Belmont. He had the idea of taking his students to the Heritage because of a dear family friend who lives there, Diane Jordan.

Tealy has worked as a commercial songwriter for a number of years, and he felt that the folks living at The Heritage could teach his students a thing or two about what it takes to write a great song.

“There’s hundreds of songwriters who move to this town every year, and a part of the reason they aren’t writing great songs is because they haven’t lived great songs,” Tealy said. Since the Belmont students are all so young they have not had the range of life experience that many residents at The Heritage have had.

Additionally, Tealy said, one of the prerequisites to becoming a master of the craft is listening. He thought that The Heritage provided a prime opportunity for his students to open their ears, hearts and minds to other people’s stories.

“My hope is they will become great listeners to the stories that life is telling all around them,” he said. “We can teach them the skills of how to translate those into a great commercial song.”

A crowd was waiting for the students when they returned to The Heritage for the 7 p.m. concert.

“The power of a song is the reason these students are here tonight,” Tealy told the audience, which included the residents the students had spoken to earlier.

Tealy explained the instructions that the students had been given. They were not supposed to write strict biographical accounts of the people at The Heritage, but to go a bit deeper. 

“What I asked them to write today were songs that help the world see life through the eyes of the resident they got to spend time with,” he said.

The students all had no trouble coming up with songs.

“You’ll hear six songs tonight that didn’t exist 24 hours ago,” Tealy said. “They only existed as seeds and dreams in your stories.”

Songwriters Corinne McKnight, Emily Falvey, and Mitchell McLaughlin all took the stage in addition to Zebracki and Wagner.

McKnight had interviewed Wayne Fleck and wrote a song that she performed on acoustic guitar called “Improvise” about “how you have to roll with the punches and go with the flow.”

Wagner changed things up a bit, gracing The Heritage with what may be one of the only rap performances in its history. Sitting in the piano he sang a refrain that included the line, “Thank God that my future didn’t go the way I planned.”

MacDonald’s marriage provided the inspiration for Zebracki’s song, “The Way I Love You.” The lines “I knew I’d never love someone the way that I, that I love you/We were crazy like magic, it just kind of happened and I know you felt it too, the way that I love you” are reminiscent of MacDonald’s stories about meeting John in London all those decades ago.

After the concert, Wayne and Mary Lou Fleck stopped for a few minutes to discuss what it had been like to see their life stories transformed into songs.

“I enjoyed it very much,” Mary Lou said, noting how much music has changed since she was the students’ age.

Wayne, the musician, was likewise impressed.

“I think they all have great futures ahead of them,” he said. “It’s exciting to see the youth pick it up and keep the music going.”

Here is a video of Taylor Zebracki singing the song inspired by Terry MacDonald, “The Way I Love You:”

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