Imagine a white-haired man seated at a piano. He’s survived the Great Depression and two wars. He takes a deep breath and begins to play “Clair de Lune.” Now imagine a 12-year-old boy seated at a piano. He’s survived school lunches, an annoying sister, and slow Wi-Fi. He also takes a deep breath and starts in on “Clair de Lune.” Assuming both players are equally competent, who to your mind sounds better? The man or video game boy?
If you’re a conductor or musician at New Horizons, an international group of bands and orchestras for adults aged 50 and up, your vote probably goes to the adult. Not to sell the 12-year-old short—his technical faculty might be impeccable—but when it comes to emoting “Clair de Lune’s” delicate balance of sweetness and pain, you can’t rely on nimble fingers alone. A song like “Clair de Lune” draws on one’s entire catalog of life suffering. For this reason, New Horizons musicians don’t triumph in spite of their age—but rather because of it.
“While adults don’t necessarily learn the material quicker, the emotional part of the performance is infinitely faster than in kids,” says Andrew Dabczynski, 58, director of the Brigham Young University New Horizons Orchestra of Provo, Utah. “I often look around during rehearsal and see musicians crying. One clarinet player told me about a song she was practicing for our orchestra. She said: ‘I played that song over and over and over and bawled my eyes out every time.’”
New Horizons provides adults the opportunity to join a band or orchestra and either continue playing an instrument they haven’t picked up since high school, or learn an entirely new instrument. This is one of the key features that sets New Horizons apart from traditional community bands, which generally expect newly recruited musicians to already know how to play. There are currently 9,200 musicians in more than 200 New Horizons groups across the world, from Australia, to Ireland, to the US.
New Horizons members often join groups because of their interest in music, but soon find that the social aspect is equally important. Post-rehearsal potluck dinners are common, and players often form friendships that last a lifetime. For Rosemarie and Chris Harrison, both 83, that friendship led to something deeper. They first met in 2002 as fellow flute players in the Santa Barbara, California, New Horizons group Prime Time Band. Both were retired—Chris after working for University of California, Los Angeles, as a geophysics researcher, and Rosemarie after working as a manager of extension courses at the University of California, Irvine. “I joined New Horizons because I wanted to learn flute,” says Rosemarie. “Learning that seemed sort of miraculous to me.”
In 2005, a year after his wife passed away, Chris invited Rosemarie along to walk his dog. The dog walks became routine. By April 2006 they were married. “Our meeting was a rare opportunity since we were in our late 70s and now we are 83,” says Chris. When talking about this experience, “At first I thought we sounded very prosaic in our ordinariness. But to us, there is nothing prosaic in taking our dog, Beauty, on walks along the beaches, mesas, and creeks here in Santa Barbara. There is nothing prosaic about noisy, friendly band rehearsals and picnics.”
While New Horizons groups cater specifically to adults 50 and older, Andrew Dabczynski found he had to make some exceptions for his orchestra in Provo, Utah, a town that is ranked 13 onMoney.CNN.com’s list of the youngest cities in America. “We’re one of the youngest cities, but we also have one of the largest populations of families,” he says. For him, adulthood is not so much an age as it is a state of mind. “There are a lot of young people with kids. It’s not uncommon to see a 22-year-old with two kids, or a 30-year-old with four kids, so there are a lot of young people who consider themselves adults. It’s not unusual for a 45-year-old with grandkids to have the same understanding as a 65-year-old with grandkids.” Because of this, the Provo New Horizons orchestra lowered its age limit from 50 to 40, so as not to exclude the younger seniors.
In addition to including people in their 40s, the Provo orchestra also incorporates even younger people from town, thanks in large part to the group’s sponsor, Brigham Young University. “Brigham Young is 50% of the reason for our existence,” says Dabczynski, who is also a professor of music education at the university.
Through its partnership with Brigham Young, the Provo orchestra invites undergrad music students to conduct and teach one hour per week. This is good for the students, because they get adult feedback, as opposed to feedback from kids who don’t have perspective, says Dabczynski.
Kristen Hyde, 25, who works as the orchestra assistant at the nearby Springville Junior High, and also as assistant conductor for the New Horizons orchestra, began guest conducting the New Horizons group when she was still a student at Brigham Young. “These are heroes that I look up to—people with incredible stories. They’ve served in wars, or overcome strokes. It’s amazing to be surrounded by such accomplished and unique people,” she says. “When teaching junior high kids, they lose attention easily; they’re tired of being at school, whereas these participants are so excited.” Hyde adds, “They’re more than students. They’re good friends who are interested in my life. Music has the power to build strong relationships.”
This interaction between old and new is educational for both sides, says Roy Ernst, the founder of New Horizons. Ernst recalls one situation in which a saxophone graduate student traded woodworking lessons for saxophone lessons with one of the New Horizons players. “New Horizons players care about their student teachers,” Ernst says. “They take on the role of adoptive parents.”
New Horizons groups not only interact with their immediate community, they also have the opportunity to meet band members from other groups at music camps. These are usually week-long collaborative training sessions with daily rehearsals, culminating in a final performance at the end of the week. New Horizons typically hosts about 10 camps per year, at various locations. They are open to both New Horizons members and nonmembers.
One of the positives of the band camp is that you get more hours of playing time, as opposed to the usual four hours per week with a regular New Horizons band. Carolyn Bird, 65, a retired secretary and sports photographer who attended the New Horizons camp in Bend, Oregon, this past July, got dents in her lip from all the time playing clarinet. But for Bird, it was worth it. “It’s so much fun you don’t think about how difficult it is,” she says. “The good thing about attending a music camp is you get more practices, and more directors,” says Bonnie Bando, 70, a retired teacher who also attended the Bend camp. “It’s great to be directed by people with different experiences. It makes you a better musician. Each director brings new methods to the table.”
Conductors at Bend this year included Jayne Morrison from Grand Forks, North Dakota; Sue Steiger from Bend; and Roy Ernst, who founded the first New Horizons band in 1991 in Rochester, New York. At an upcoming band camp in Interlochen, Michigan, New Horizons will host a guest conductor all the way from Bologna, Italy. “The band camp is also a good place to compare notes with musicians from other New Horizons groups, and bring ideas back home,” Bando says.
For some players, New Horizons is a support system when they lose a spouse. When Bird’s husband died on a Friday, six and a half years ago, her bandmate made sure she was back in rehearsal that following Tuesday. “The New Horizons band was some normalcy during a time of upheaval,” she says. Years later, when that bandmate died in a motorcycle accident, the band was still there to support Bird, and one another.
New Horizons founder Roy Ernst is convinced there’s a fountain of youth effect for New Horizons musicians. “They age well,” he says. “They’re more active, more intellectually stimulated. Maybe it’s because of the music, and maybe it’s because the kinds of people who seek out music are healthier to begin with. Either way, the music’s got something to do with it.”