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Retirement is great time to strike up the band

  • Story Highlights
  • More seniors are making music in their golden years
  • They play an instrument they learned before or pick up new one
  • Group sponsors senior bands and orchestras in U.S.
  • Benefits: Social, emotional, physical -- even spiritual growth
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By Lisa Jo Rudy
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(LifeWire) -- Practicing the clarinet may be beyond tedious for teenagers forced into music lessons by their parents but for 70-year-old Joe Pedlosky it's a labor of love.

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Saxophonist Jerry Hendricks from Olympia, Washington, practices in Cambria, California, in March 2006

"From the time I was a little kid, I always wanted to play clarinet," says Pedlosky, a retired scientist in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. "But we didn't have the money. Then ... I decided it was now or never."

Pedlosky, who plays with a local band, is one of many seniors picking up a musical instrument late in life. Many can thank New Horizons International Music Association, which sponsors senior bands and orchestras in the United States and Canada.

The group was founded by Roy Ernst, professor emeritus at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. When he formed the first senior-only band in 1991, it was a radical notion.

"It was widely believed that the window of opportunity for learning music was childhood," Ernst says. "If you didn't learn then, you missed your chance."

The senior bands prove otherwise. As a matter of fact, these novice musicians give new meaning to the conductor's command, "Once more, with feeling."

"I remember conducting at a senior band camp in California, and we played an arioso by Bach," recalls Ernst. "The second time through, two people were crying, they were so touched by the music.

"High school kids could never do what we do, because they haven't lived enough, they haven't seen enough joy or sorrow. We have a special ability to play music expressively and with feeling."

Ernst, who sometimes refers to himself as the Johnny Appleseed of senior bands, made it his goal to bring seniors to music. From just one band in Rochester, New Horizons has grown to more than a hundred bands, plus offshoots from brass quintets to swing ensembles.

Music for body and soul

Ernst's passion moved Professor Don Coffman of the University of Iowa to create his own senior band -- and to conduct research into how music can benefit older musicians. His findings: Benefits include social, emotional, physical and even spiritual growth. In part, Coffman found, seniors benefit from being part of a group that works together toward a significant goal. Other plusses can include better ability to focus, increased lung capacity and improved fine motor skills.

Dinny Stamp would agree. She'd played trombone in high school; after retiring, she attended a performance of Coffman's Iowa City band and thought, "I can do that!" Playing in the band "has been one of the most rewarding experiences of not only my retirement, but my life," says Stamp, who turns 78 this month. "It's a joy to make wonderful music with new friends and to share this music with the community."

Judy Schroeder, 62, another member of the Iowa City band, took up the oboe about three months before retirement. "I find that playing music really keeps your mind agile ... and our band director wants to challenge us to do well, think hard, try hard. It's just so much fun." She's enjoying herself so much that she has taken up the bassoon as well.

Getting started

If you're interested in getting involved with instrumental music, look for a band in your area on the New Horizons Web site.

If there's no senior band available, or if you're interested in learning on your own, most teachers are willing to take on an older student. Pedlosky advises searching for the right kind of person so you're not quickly turned off.

"It's important, if you're going to start cold, to really find a good teacher -- someone who sets standards for you but is also mature enough to understand that it's unusual for an older person to take up something about which they know nothing."

There are real differences between younger and older learners.

"Adults are often more analytical about their learning and more persistent, so some display more rapid growth than would a 10-year-old beginner," Coffman explains. "On the other hand, the physical demands of some instruments may lead to a plateauing effect for adults." Some seniors, for example, may not be able to sustain high notes on a trumpet.

Which instrument should you choose? If you've always had a passion for one instrument, Ernst says, go with your heart. But if you're not sure, ask for suggestions from the band director.

"If the group doesn't have a tuba player, you'd be quite the hero if you became one," he says.

Who knows? You might even become a bit of a hero to yourself.

"Music is so demanding and compelling that once you start playing, everything else flies out the window," Pedlosky says. "It gives you a deeper appreciation of music and musicians. And sometimes my music sounds really good to me, and that's wonderful."

Roy Ernst: Saxophonist Jerry Hendricks from Olympia, Washington, practices with other band members at a New Horizons band camp in Cambria, California, in March 2006. Many of the musicians did not take up an instrument until retirement. Jon Beringer: Dinny Stamp, 78, played the trombone in high school. She took it up again when she joined a senior band in Iowa City, Iowa. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Lisa Jo Rudy is a freelance writer based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her credits include books as well as print and online articles.

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