Date: October 1st, 2008
Jack Schnepp doesn’t know what he’d do if he didn’t sing. “It’s just a natural thing now,” he says. The 78-year-old inherited a love for music from his parents—his mother was once involved in vaudeville and his ukulele-playing father performed in amateur productions. Jack began singing lessons when he was a young teenager, following his sister’s lead. He performed in musicals in high school and at the University of Pennsylvania, but his singing career truly began in 1999 when he joined the Young @ Heart chorus.
With ages ranging from 72 to 88, one might expect the co-ed chorus to sing “oldies but goodies,” but instead they are known for serenading audiences with the unexpected—Outkast, Nirvana, and Bruce Springsteen—to name a few. While Jack admits he is usually tapped to sing the more docile ballads, he has grown to enjoy the group’s repertoire of contemporary rock songs.
A materials manager in his former career, Jack joined the group after hearing from friends about the travel opportunities the chorus affords. Since he joined nine years ago, the chorus has traveled to such destinations as Australia, Germany, and Ireland. Although Jack says Zurich is his favorite place to visit, his most memorable performance came in Norway with the country’s king and queen sitting in the front row. The day after the show the chorus members were individually introduced to the royal couple.
While popular overseas for years—they even have a few “groupies”—the Northampton, Massachusetts-based group recently received a dose of movie stardom in the U.S. Young @ Heart, a documentary that followed the chorus through several weeks of rehearsal leading up to a performance, opened in theaters in the spring. National publicity for the group has soared since the film’s release with appearances on talk shows, including The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, as well as in numerous YouTube videos.
Jack believes Young @ Heart has such an impact on audiences because people are seeing a group of older adults who are still enjoying life. “They are seeing people who are saying, ‘I may have retired, but I didn’t retire from life.’ ”
Sometimes the meanings of the songs change when the group sings them, he says. “When I get up to sing I’m telling that story as if I’d written that song and the meanings are particular to me.” Normally, the loudness of a band can overpower the lyrics of a song, but the focus on the chorus allows people to sit back and listen to the words.
“When an older guy starts singing [a song], people realize that they’ve really been there,” says Jack. “It’s not just a young kid talking about a little day he had with a problem, but this is people who are singing about going through life.” Ironically, the group considers Bob Dylan’s Forever Young its theme song.
The singers often deal with the losses of loved ones and fellow chorus members, as well as their own personal health problems. These experiences undoubtedly strengthen the camaraderie among them. “Everyone in the chorus wants the person next to them to do well,” says Jack, but he acknowledges that they must be careful when giving advice to each other.
The chorus rehearses year-round and travels abroad at least twice a year, but Jack still finds time to spend with his six children and 17 grandchildren whom he credits as his secret to staying so energetic. With five of his six children living nearby, Jack frequently supports his grandchildren at their various sporting events. Although he says they can’t all carry a tune, they share in his enthusiasm for the chorus, referring to the songs as “awesome.”
When he’s not singing or visiting his family, Jack stays active by walking, working out, and ballroom dancing with his “lady friend.” He also plays a number of computer games to maintain his hand-eye coordination.
Jack shows no intention of slowing—embarking on a new endeavor of singing in a dinner show, and still hoping someone will approach him to cut a solo record. “Age shouldn’t restrict you. What restricts you is the infirmities you might come up with later in life, but as long as you feel good, do what you want to do…Find what you like and go and live life.”