Strike Up the Music!
Even if you've never played an instrument before, you can still learn. The rewards are many, and now's the time to start.
Thursday, June 05, 2008
Enjoying the Sunny Side of the Street
Seniors tend to emphasize the positive more than younger people do, and for good reason. As people age, they gain not only life experience but better emotional balance.
Music: It's Play Time!
The ways to get involved making music are as varied as the instruments in a symphony orchestra.
Photo by Michael Paras
Jazz buff William Taylor, 75, loves the history behind the music he plays. “Just talking about it is thrilling.”
Sometimes an avid musician hasn't been thwarted by negativity, but simply the wrong instrument. When offered music lessons at his elementary school, Silvio Di Loreto dreamed of the clarinet, but a teacher assigned him the cello. The boy struggled to haul the heavy instrument across town to his lessons, and abandoned it as soon as he could.
At age 70, retired from his real estate career and living in Santa Barbara, California, Di Loreto went to the Salvation Army and laid out $35 for a clarinet. He put in another $60 to bring it up to snuff. When a trombone-playing friend mentioned a newly forming New Horizons band. Di Loreto checked it out. "I didn't even know how to put my clarinet together," he says. But the director's slow and welcoming approach, combined with the tremendous sense of humor and support among his fellow bandmates, hooked Di Loreto. He stayed, and he practiced. He also managed to win the heart of fellow clarinetist Mary MacDonald. The two have been together 10 years.
The attitude, exemplified by New Horizons and other programs like it, is all that is needed. "Recreational music making is not based on mastery or performance," says Bruhn. "It unites people despite their challenges or backgrounds." Indeed, bands can become extended families for retirees who often feel increasingly isolated from family members, or deprived of social interaction due to the deaths of close friends and loved ones.
J.B. Vander Ark, age 74, a founding director of The Prime Time Band, a New Horizons band in Santa Barbara, California, speaks warmly of the constant support throughout the group. "When we first started, everyone just wanted to play all night, and I said, ‘No, we should take a break now and then.' Now we take a break, and it's hard to get them back because of all the socializing!" Vander Ark says the group also rallies around sick or hospitalized members.
Finding your voice
That sense of community also pervades the many senior choruses that are sprouting up like wildflowers throughout the country. A 2003 study commissioned by the non-profit organization Chorus America found that singing in groups is associated with a host of positive life attributes, including volunteerism, political activism, public awareness, and sociability.
For Lou Chapman, finding his voice has changed his life. Last year, the 64-year-old United Auto Workers union representative spent a long, cold Ohio winter watching public television with his wife and found himself hooked on opera. "I wanted to be engaged," he says, "rather than a spectator. I liked to sing. But I didn't know anything about how to read music." Chapman did some research at his local music store (see "It's Play Time!" for more tips on finding music in your community), and discovered private instruction through the outreach program at Baldwin-Wallace College Conservatory of Music in Berea, Ohio.
In short time, Chapman learned to read music and understand elementary theory. Four months later he auditioned for the Baldwin-Wallace Men's Chorus—and made it. "If I can do this," he says, "then anyone can do this."
Chapman not only plans to continue his study and sing with the chorus, but also to refine his skills enough to go out and sing in everything from union halls to nursing facilities. "I wanted to have a gift that I could pass along, that was purely mine," he says, "that I could give to someone else. We ought to be able to stand up and help each other. To sing, to embellish love and death and suffering and passion and all those things. That's what it's about."
For elder musicians like Chapman, music is redefining and sharpening their lives. For William Taylor, age 75, just knowing he can express himself on his trumpet gets him out of bed in the morning. A lifelong music lover, Taylor (pictured above) has had his instrument by his side, but he feels like at this point, he is for the first time a serious student. "I'm retired now," he says. "So I practice. A lot. I practice as much as I can." Taylor plays with a New Horizons band at the Third Street Music School Settlement in New York City. "My colleagues at New Horizons, they know a lot about the history of music and they all have this great love of music," he says. "Just talking about it is thrilling."
Photo by Angela Shoemaker
Mildred Rebennack, age 80, says learning the harmonica helped draw her out of a lonely retirement.
For Mildred Rebennack, learning the harmonica has tied her back to girlhood roots filled with family singing as she was growing up poor in Alabama and Indiana. It also drew the 80-year-old into joyful group lessons at the Indianapolis Senior Center, after her husband's death in 1985 and her retirement in 1990 left her feeling lonely.
But perhaps best of all, her humble instrument ties her to the future, and especially to her grandson. A natural showman, Rebennack loves to dress up in a red, white and blue vest, don an Uncle Sam hat, and perform a set of patriotic songs, including "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Last Veteran's Day, she made an appearance at her grandson's elementary school, in full dress and song. Did she make a splash? You bet. Did she love it? Absolutely.
Rebennack puts it as simply as a three-chord tune, but it's all you need to know. "When you get old, you can do things."