Adults Buck Conventional Wisdom to Play Musical Instruments

Members of New Horizons rehearse for a concert. i i

Members of New Horizons rehearse for a concert. hide caption

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Members of New Horizons rehearse for a concert.

Members of New Horizons rehearse for a concert.

Learning how to play a musical instrument isn't just for kids anymore. An organization called New Horizons has helped establish over 100 bands and orchestras for older players in the U.S. and Canada over the past 15 years. Many of the group's members are either complete novices, or haven't played in decades.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Seventy is the new 50. That's the phrase being used to describe the active lifestyle and vitality of an aging generation. People who have retired from their careers find themselves with energy and ambition far beyond the rocking chair.

NPR's Gail Wein reports there's even a nationally franchised program that encourages older adults to make music together.

GAIL WEIN reporting:

Last year, Jim August of Arlington, Va., blew 47 years of dust off his trombone. He played it at his high school graduation, but since then, family and career have kept him too busy. Now retired, August has found a way to return to his love of music.

Mr. JIM AUGUST (Arlington, Va. Resident): I'd been talking about picking up my trombone again and my wife saw an ad for the New Horizons band. And she says, this would probably be good for you. And I came and I am just having a ball, the time of my life, better than high school.

WEIN: August plays in a local chapter of the New Horizons band. This particular band is just a year old, but the concept of a concert band for senior citizens goes back about 15 years. That's when Roy Ernst, professor emeritus at the Eastman School of Music, came up with the idea.

Mr. ROY ERNST (Professor Emeritus, Eastman School of Music): I was looking at retired people I knew and life didn't look that good to me. To me, it looked like people retired from their jobs and watched TV for a few years, or golfed for a while, and then it was kind of over.

And I thought, wouldn't it be great if people could be part of a group? And especially, to have things to look forward to doing.

WEIN: Ernst launched what was to be the first New Horizons in Rochester, N.Y. He says that the idea seemed radical at the time.

Mr. ERNST: In 1991, it was generally considered that people couldn't learn how to play an instrument as an adult. That it was something you had to do as a kid.

WEIN: Ernst expected only about a dozen people at that very first rehearsal in Rochester in 1991, but more than 30 showed up. The program gained momentum, expanding from that one band in Rochester, to four more in other cities the following year. Now there are over 100 New Horizons bands, with a couple dozen more in the planning stages.

(Soundbite of band playing)

WEIN: Paul Norris, the director of the New Horizons band in Arlington, Va., says learning an instrument from scratch is a challenge at any age, but senior citizens may be hesitant to go out on a limb.

Mr. PAUL NORRIS (Director, Arlington New Horizons Band): I think it takes a lot of guts, really, to have, in many cases, been leaders in their profession and then to come back at this stage in the game, to something that they know very little of and allow themselves to be vulnerable in that respect, and try something that, you know, they're not going to be successful at the first time, necessarily.

WEIN: For many in the New Horizons band, success at music making is not really the point. Trombonist, Jim August.

Mr. AUGUST: My wife thinks it's wonderful. She says, you know, you got an extra spring in your step. And she says, I love - well not I love - she says, when you practice I can sometimes recognize a tune.

(Soundbite of director speaking to band)

Unidentified Man: Thirty-two, I really want to hear you there.

WEIN: Jean Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at the George Washington University, headed up a study looking at older adults and creativity. He found mental and physical health advantages in participating in music and arts programs. The benefits, he says, are two-fold.

Mr. JEAN COHEN (Director, Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University): One is a whole body of research that shows when older persons are involved in situations where they experience a sense of mastery or control, they have positive health outcomes. And the other key factor is the role of engaging in these activities with other people who provide social support.

WEIN: According to Cohen, becoming involved in group arts activities can even boost a senior's immune system. By developing the New Horizons band program, Roy Ernst has created a vehicle for older adults to engage in the arts.

Mr. ERNST: The last entry point for group music making, for most people, was elementary school. That is, the last time you had a chance to buy a trumpet and be part of a group was elementary school. That doesn't make any sense.

WEIN: Ernst explains that having the right music director is crucial, but they're not so hard to find.

Mr. ERNST: Middle school teachers are like ducks in water when it comes to directing New Horizons bands. I mean, they just seem to know exactly what needs to be done.

(Soundbite of music director talking to band)

WEIN: New Horizons band direct Paul Norris, is also director of bands at Swanson Middle School in Arlington. He's found that there are more similarities than differences working with the youngsters and the seniors.

Mr. NORRIS: For example, preparing for a concert, the middle school kids across the street will mention that, you know, they're excited because their parents are coming to the concert and they get a little bit nervous. But with the New Horizons band, I have members that are nervous because their sons or daughters or even grandchildren are coming. They want to impress their kids and grandkids.

Ms. KATHY JAMISON (New Horizons Band Member): My son is so proud that he can sit in the audience and watch me, after I sat in the audience for him, year after year, after year. He's tickled to death. It's just very cool to see.

WEIN: That's flute player Kathy Jamison. She's playing in the New Horizons band after several decades' hiatus from music.

Ms. JAMISON: Now, the breath control is a little bit challenging, so we have to work at it. But we all just work at it, and that's part of the challenge. It's just as hard to do that as it is the learn the notes again, and learn the fingering, and the timing, and everything else.

WEIN: The players in the band come from a variety of musical backgrounds. Some, like Jim August and Kathy Jamison, played in high school and are now returning to music. Then, there are the brand new musicians, like Betty Ann Ruben, who practically tripped over her new passion at the middle school where she worked.

Ms. BETTY ANN RUBEN (New Horizons Band Member): I found a baritone horn lying on the floor of the music room when I was teaching, and I took it home and taught myself, and then started to play with the sixth graders. And when I retired, there were no more sixth graders to play with, so I was delighted when New Horizons band started. And it is lots and lots of fun.

WEIN: For some of these older adults, playing in the New Horizons band is the first step in fulfilling a lifelong fantasy.

Ms. JAMISON: I would like to play the piccolo solo in Stars and Stripes Forever. Paul says that's a big dream.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of piccolo solo in “Stars And Stripes Forever)

WEIN: Gail Wein, NPR News.

NEARY: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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