Never too old to play- Band camp strikes a chord with seniors

Sunday, July 13, 2003

LACEY, Wash. -- The years melt away as the notes pour out of 83-year-old Charles Caley's trombone.

He hadn't played since he left school in 1939, but the retired dentist picked up his trombone a few years ago to join "New Horizons," a band for seniors that requires no recent musical experience -- or any experience, for that matter.

Now Caley and about 70 musicians from New Horizons bands across the country have gathered for a week of band camp. They reach their crescendo at a free public concert Saturday night, where they planned to play everything from Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" to the score of "Aladdin."

At this band camp for grown-ups, making music and making friends are harmonious goals.

"It has been one of the best experiences of my retired life," said Caley, the oldest band camper. "The people are so much like family."

Retired music professor Roy Ernst started New Horizons 12 years ago in his hometown of Corning, N.Y. It caught on with help from the International Music Products Association, which sensed a new market.

A new experience

Ernst, 65, is one of four conductors leading the orchestra this week. He said he knew conducting seniors was going to be a new experience when, at the initial New Horizons meeting, everyone arrived early and rehearsal began 30 minutes before the scheduled start time.

"That is unheard-of in the music world!" Ernst said.

He said in addition to their enthusiasm, older musicians are often capable of expressing deeper emotion in their music than younger players, because seniors have such a rich well of life experience from which to draw.

"People have such strong feelings about the music, it's not surprising to see tears," Ernst said.

In return for their dedication, band members reap benefits beyond their mastery of Mahler and Gershwin, Ernst said.

Social connections

"As people get older, they get more isolated. This is an activity that just build friendships," Ernst said. He said friendship has led to love and marriage from a few of the roughly 4,000 New Horizon band members in the United States and Canada.

Research has found that strong social connections help older people stay healthy and live longer. Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanity at George Washington University, is in the middle of a five-year, national study of how participation in local arts programs affects seniors' well-being.

Compared with seniors who do group activities unrelated to the arts, Cohen said, seniors tend to be healthier and happier when they're involved in art programs, whether it's painting, writing or music.

That's no surprise to Victor Jowders, who started New Horizons bands in Tacoma and Olympia about four years ago. Jowders taught Caley's son back in 1968, when he was band director for Tacoma public schools. He's thrilled to be back on the conductor's stand at 67.

"This is a life after retirement," Jowders said. "You can take the boy out of the band, but you can't take the band out of the boy."

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