It was only a classroom off the Fellowship Hall at Fredericksburg United Methodist Church.
But for the students at Living Well Learning Center, a nonprofit program for adults with developmental disabilities, it felt like they were inside a Nashville recording studio, psyching themselves up to lay down the vocal track on their new hit song.
Nervous, they collectively took a deep breath and stretched. Board levels were set. The instrumental track came up in the monitors. Singer/songwriter and now producer Bernie Nelson jabbed a finger to give them their cue. Like troupers, the seven students opened their mouths and poured out their hearts.
“God Loves You Just The Way You Are” was going digital.
The idea to write and record a song came about through a series of serendipities. While she was managing a senior living center, Connie Eckhardt became familiar with the Living Well Learning Center students, who would stop by to play bingo with residents.
Meanwhile, Eckhardt met Bernie Nelson, a Nashville-based songwriter who was doing more gigs in Texas. Both Eckhardt and Nelson had helped care for members of their own families who had Down syndrome. After Nelson lost his brother in the spring, Eckhardt — Who was now on the board of Living Well Learning Center — invited him to perform for the students.
“I sang for them a month or two after my brother passed,” Nelson recalled. “It was helpful and heartfelt. Then they asked if they could write a song, and wanted to know how to do it. I said, of course they could.”
Nelson has taught songwriting all over the world, as part of a project to help military veterans process their experiences. Working with the students turned out to be no different than working with any other amateur songwriters.
“They asked a lot of questions, gave a lot of input, and had a lot of excitement,” Nelson said. “I’d say it was a 50/50 collaboration. The song is simple, but perfect. I am real proud of it and I love their enthusiasm.”
The students came up with about 10 ideas for songs, which Nelson helped whittle down. They wrote out the lyrics on a blackboard, with Nelson guiding them as to what worked and what didn’t.
Nelson took the final draft to Nashville, where a studio band laid down the instrumental tracks under his vocals. That was financed with contributions from a Western Edge fundraiser and a grant from the Texas Heritage Music Foundation, of which Eckhardt is also a director.
Nelson brought the recording back to Texas, where Jerialice Arsenault of Riversounds studio stepped in to add the background vocals. Arsenault made sure to give the students “the full professional treatment.”
“I’ve recorded a lot of church choirs, and these students did fantastic!” Arsenault said. “I consider the production as the frame, and we’re giving them a good frame for whatever they put in there. They really did well, and we had a blast.”
“God Loves You Just The Way You Are” is currently being mixed and mastered for a mid-December release. The CDs will be used to raise awareness of the Living Well Learning Center, where adults with developmental disabilities get the opportunity to socialize with their peers, while also doing service for the community, such as recycling, helping deliver meals on wheels, and visiting nursing homes, according to Peggy Hannon, director.
“We depend on donations for a major part of our funding,” Hannon said. “Since we are nonprofit, this is what keeps us going and supports our mission. If students didn’t have this opportunity, most would be sitting at home.”
As they finished their final take, one of the students broke down in tears. Nelson and others moved over to comfort her. After, Nelson tried to describe what happened.
“She was so overwhelmed that she was given the opportunity to sing, something she has always wanted to do. This song helped her express how she feels. That is powerful.”
That context makes the words even more moving:
God Loves You Just The Way You Are
We’re as different as night and day
But we’re the same in so many ways
None of us are perfect
We’ve all got scars
But, God loves you, just the way you are
(Used with permission Living Well Learning Center and Bernie Nelson Music)
After the session, the students were still feeling the buzz.
“It was a little scary, singing in front of people where everyone is able to hear you,” said one. “But scary in a good way! This is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
The student who cried earlier?
“This is my inspiration now,” she sobbed. “I want to keep singing.”
The CD “God Loves You Just The Way You Are” will be available mid-December. Information posted at www.BernieNelson.com.
Phil Houseal is a writer and owner of Full House PR, www.FullHousePR.com.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.