Mature musicians develop a friendship in New Horizons Band

May 4, 2019

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) — Diana Blake doesn’t pull her punches.

“You’re sitting on that note like an egg,” the director admonished a section of the New Horizons Band in a recent rehearsal for their May 6 spring concert. Several musicians snickered in response, but the band performed a decidedly spritelier second playing of the Scherzo movement in Shostakovich’s “Waltz No. 2.”

Blake, who has led the 85-member band for the past 15 years, jokingly says it’s like trying “to work with a bunch of ornery middle schoolers,” but she’s quick to point out that, kidding aside, these 50+ and older players “aren’t fooling around” and take their music seriously.

Musicians must be at least 50 to join New Horizons; the oldest member is 97-year-old Lewis Lynch, who plays saxophone and is one of the band’s few remaining original members. “I joined to have good time. I started back when New Horizons started here back in 1999 with 17 people, and Bill Shepherd was our conductor,” Lynch recalled.

“None of us members knew much about playing, but once I got into it, I loved it. It’s a good time, and I plan to keep coming until I can’t,” the sax player said to The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. Lynch still shows up an hour before rehearsal to take group lessons.

All the brass instruments — trumpet, tuba, trombone, euphonium, French horn — along with woodwinds — flute, clarinet, saxophone, oboe and bassoon — and percussion, including timpani, bells and xylophone, are all represented in the band.

Members come from Waterloo and Cedar Falls, as well as Grundy Center, Waverly, Janesville, Readlyn, Sumner, Floyd, Fredericksburg, Tripoli, Dysart, Hudson, Jesup, Denver, Charles City, Maynard, Oelwein and Dike.

The band includes people who may have played an instrument in their younger days, who currently play an instrument, or who might like to try a new instrument. Retired band leaders and music teachers share music stands with homemakers and retirees from teaching, business, sales and marketing and law enforcement, for example.

“Some are folks who can’t give up being part of a music ensemble, and others may have played horn or clarinet, whatever, in high school and want to get back into playing. You may think you’ve forgotten how, but it’s still up there in your brain. We just have to dig it out, blast it free,” Blake explained.

Beginners can join, too. “You can start from scratch, too, but you might struggle a bit, and you need to be able to read music,” she advised.

The band is offered through the UNI Community Music School, directed by Heather Hamilton. Seven UNI music education majors teach group lessons for band members. “It’s a great opportunity for the students to get experience with a different style of teaching. It also shows them that making music can last a lifetime,” Hamilton said.

Lessons begin at 8 a.m., followed by band rehearsals at 9 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Davis Hall at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center. The fall session is 12 weeks long, and the summer session lasts eight weeks.

Blake, who retired after 38 years teaching instrumental band and music for Waverly-Shell Rock elementary and middle schools, joined in 2003. “Bill Shepherd was directing. All I wanted to do was sit in a chair and play without having to make decisions,” she recalled.

That lasted about one year, when Shepherd asked her to take the baton when he had to step away from the podium. That was 15 years ago in May.

Participating in the band gives mature adults feelings of belonging, enjoyment and importance, Blake said. “You begin to know everybody depends on everybody else, and you want to be there to fill your role. Playing an instrument requires mental alertness and hand-eye coordination, which is important as we get older. You may be old, but you can still learn new things.”

People make new friends and feel less lonely or socially isolated, Blake explained. “They’re having fun, even when I’m yelling at them. It makes you feel you’re doing something special and being part of the community.”

Lee VerMulm of Cedar Falls hadn’t played euphonium in 44 years when he joined the band 12 years ago, but now he “wouldn’t miss it for anything. I taught for 34 years at Cedar Falls High School, but I’d gone so long without picking up an instrument. My wife suggested it, so I bought a new instrument. I love the people, and I love playing the music,” he said.

Retired Waverly-Shell Rock law enforcement officer Jeff Franzen joined to play his French horn. “I got interested at my 25-year high school reunion, attended a few concerts and decided to start playing again. I love the challenge,” he said.

“I’m having a blast. It’s so much fun, and you’re never too old to learn something new,” said Bev Dirks of Grundy Center. The retired elementary music teacher plays saxophone.

Charles Rowe, a veteran trombone player who performed in the New York City area for 45 years until twin grandsons brought him and his wife to the Cedar Valley, joined four years ago. “I just like playing good band music. I love that there’s an outlet for more mature players. It’s a large group, and we’re very social,” he said. Rowe also belongs to the Cedar Valley Big Band.

In addition to Shostakovich’s jazzy waltz made famous on the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” the New Horizons Band concert will feature several other waltzes, a medley of railroad songs, marches, the Armed Forces Salute and the “Trombone Rag” featuring the trombone section, and several other waltzes. Travis Toliver will sing a Cole Porter medley with the band. Toliver is vice chair of the Waverly Chamber Music board and executive director of the Waverly Chamber of Commerce and Waverly Main Street program.


Information from: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, http://www.wcfcourier.com