Band members rediscover love of instrumental music
Wes Miller's New Horizons band is full of "lapsed" players.
Bill Knuth had not played his trumpet since middle school -- 55 years ago.
Richard Brown put his trumpet away 47 years ago after his sophomore year at Ohio State University.
Kathy Connor picked up the sax for the first time since high school, inspired by her 10-year-old son signing up for school band.
Bonnie Gilligan's clarinet had been "in the closet" for 40 years since she last played in high school.
Dee Smith, a recently retired music teacher, had never played in a band, only briefly experiencing the clarinet during a college course.
These stories are hardly unique, which is why the original New Horizons program was founded at the Eastman School of Music in New York 20 years ago.
New Horizons began as a way to introduce or re-introduce senior citizens to instruments they once played.
As it has grown, local ensembles have adapted the program to include any adults and, in some cases, beginners.
According to the New Horizons website, there are more than 200 active groups in seven countries.
Miller started the program at Columbus Music Academy in Westerville, which he co-owns, in 2011.
He said he knew there were plenty of folks in central Ohio who fit the profile -- retirees who had played in band in school who wanted to start playing again.
"We have people who haven't touched their horn in 40 years, but that muscle memory doesn't go away," Miller said, adding his group has "ended up with a lot of people who can really play."
Brown, a retired math teacher who lives in Pataskala, said he would sometimes play the OSU fight song during football season, but left his horn otherwise ignored while he worked and raised a family.
"When I retired, I needed a challenge," Brown said. "I had to figure out if I could still play and not embarrass myself."
"A lot came back right away, about half and half," said Gilligan, a Powell resident.
"I have been amazed at what has come back and what I'm struggling with," she said.
Connor likened her experience to the classic "like riding a bicycle."
The Westerville resident even purchased a new instrument.
Miller rehearses in a group setting, the small ensemble reading simple (for now) band charts. He said the members often start out nervous about playing in front of others, but enjoy playing the band repertoire and hearing their parts with other instruments.
"After six months, it's now frustrating because I think I should be better," said Knuth, an Upper Arlington resident.
Smith, a Dublin resident, could read music, but didn't come into the program with the specific background on her instrument that some of the other members had.
"I have struggled on some things, but I'm plugging away," she said. "I've always wanted to be in a band."
Columbus Music Academy runs a similar program for stringed instruments, led by Jane Watson.
"Nobody should be afraid if they can't read or have never read music," Watson said.
She said studies have shown that actively playing a musical instrument can improve brain function, not just in seniors.
Two of Watson's beginners, Cindy Birchfield of Orient and Edward Watson of Columbus' South Side, both said they regretted not making more of an effort to learn music when they were younger.
"I always said 'When I grow up, I'm going to learn how to play something,'" Birchfield said. (Her "something" is the violin.)
"I love music, but never had the time," Edward Watson said.
"It's hard, but doable. It gives my brain a workout," he said.
Rather than prepping players to be able to play in community bands, Miller said New Horizons often becomes its own community band.
Indeed, the academy's New Horizons group recently performed in front of an audience at a local retirement community, for the first time.
Miller said participation in the group is open to people who play traditional band and orchestra instruments.