Touring Europe as an organist and teaching music at the University of Michigan are only two highlights of Michele Johns’s outstanding life.
Music has been a part of Michele’s life since her childhood, and she has shared her talent with others ever since.
Michele was born Jan. 7, 1937 in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. She has a brother who is nine years older and sometimes acted like a second father. Her mother was an artist, focusing mainly on watercolor and oil, as well as an amateur musician. On the weekends, Michele listened to the radio with her parents, and often they listened to metropolitan operas. This is where her love for music began.
Michele’s family did not attend church regularly, but an elementary school friend invited Michele to her church, the American Baptist Church. Michele soon found herself there all the time, and it became like a second home.
She first started singing in the choir, and when she was about 10 years old, they realized she could play the piano as well. The church choir director helped guide her and hone her skills and abilities. It was at this time she learned about the organ.
She attended college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill, studying music including piano, organ, and choral directing. Here she met her husband, Tom, who also studied music. After college, he was drafted into the Army.
After her father passed away, her mother remarried and moved to New Mexico. When Tom got out of the Army, Michele and Tom decided to move to New Mexico as well. They enjoyed the city, but found it had nothing to offer them musically. They later called a placement bureau from Chicago, and found an opportunity in Ann Arbor, Mich. They moved, and soon fell in love with the culture, the sights to see, and the things they could do in this area, such as attending local concerts.
They had three children: one girl and two boys. Michele stayed home to raise the children, and Tom worked in the Ann Arbor Public Schools as a choral music instructor. He also organized plays and designed sets, while Michele helped play the piano. Together, they put on several plays during the summertime for the students.
After the children became older, Michele went back to school, earning a master’s degree in music and a Ph.D. in musical arts from the University of Michigan. While she was a student, she went to Europe about a half dozen times to tour churches and mostly play the organs. She shared stories of bribing custodians with bottles of liquor to unlock the room in order to play the organs.
Following graduation, she taught church music skills, pipe organ, and playing/improvisational skills at U of M. She said people are often timid to improvise anything on an organ. But in church, when a pastor says, “Play something,” they must be able to improvise!
She later accepted a full-time music director position at a church in Plymouth. In this role, she trained choirs, organized concert series, and taught improvisational keyboard skills. She also took her choir members to perform on tours throughout Europe, including Spain, Netherlands, Germany, and Austria! They used a company to plan the trips and provide a bus and driver, and Michele helped pick the stops for performances. She played the organ during the tour as well.
Because Michele taught church music skills, she always kept a position in a church. She was an organist at the First Congregational Church in Ann Arbor, and after she retired from teaching at U of M, she kept the church position.
She also played in pit orchestras and published a book about keyboard improvisation.
Michele's favorite style of music is “any kind.” She simply enjoys whatever she plays! She really enjoys J.S. Bach as an organist, and admits she loves show tunes.
Michele continues to encourage people to play or perform music.
“Be brave and sign up!” she said, adding that it’s important to have music in your life.
In fact, her daughter plays the French horn, and also has a doctoral degree in music. She teaches at Valdosta University in Georgia.
At Waltonwood Cherry Hill in Canton, Michele plays piano in the resident choir, and is great friends with a violinist here, Earl. Together they play music for the residents on Friday evenings.
Michele uses a famous quote by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “Without music, life would be a mistake.”