New Horizons offers music lessons for the young at heart

At the age of 73, Judith Maxwell says she would usually be on a university campus to visit her granddaughter, but not so last month. Instead, Maxwell herself was living on campus at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo. She was spending the week playing in three different bands, attending a tutorial given by the Canadian Armed Forces Band, and listening to two concerts, as part of a music camp hosted by the New Horizons International Music Association (NHIMA).

“Musicians don’t grow old, you know,” she explains mischievously, speaking by phone from her home at Wilmot Creek. But then she gets serious. “A lot of studies show that music keeps the brain going and it’s also good for the heart.”

Maxwell has an almost contagious enthusiasm for music making, extolling the benefits of joining a band to learn a musical instrument, no matter what your age. And there is research, collected by the NHIMA, to back up her claim.

“Active participation in music fills important needs for adults – the need for challenging intellectual activity, the need to be a contributing member of a group, and the need to have exciting events in the future,” states the NHIMA. “It makes connections to the past, the present and the future. It also connects one to other individuals and other cultures. Making music is a way of making vital connections to life.”

“Our music is very sociable,” says Maxwell, noting a benefit of group instruction. New Horizons music programs provide access for adults, including those with no music-making experience at all, as well as those who were once active in school music programs but haven’t played for years.

“Our program is a daytime teaching and performance program,” explains Maxwell, Founding Director of the Bowmanville chapter. “We have three levels. We will teach people who have never played before. And we love to have those people who played many years ago, who have an instrument tucked away in a closet, and maybe it’s been 40 or 50 years since they’ve played it. And we also want people who love to play in a band.”

“As we get older, it suits us to play in a band during the daytime. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get out, to meet people, and you don’t have to drive at night,” she notes.

Maxwell founded the Bowmanville chapter of New Horizons in January 2007 with 12 people she was teaching at Wilmot Creek. Today, she says, there are about 60 members, ranging in age from 50 to 90.

“We’ve had incredible growth. We’re the only adult, daytime teaching program between Guelph and Kingston,” she says, adding that members come from all of the neighbouring communities, including Orono, Newtonville, Cobourg and even Toronto.

The group consists of four different bands to accommodate every skill level. The beginner band is for people with no previous music-making experience. Newcomers can choose from a variety of wind instruments, such as the flute, the clarinet, the trumpet, the French horn, the saxophone, the trombone and the tuba.

The next level is the Community Band, “for people who are somewhere in the middle,” says the Founding Director. This band plays mostly popular music and performs at seniors homes.

Then there is the Concert Band, which plays at dances and includes a swing program, and there is a Dixieland Band.

New Horizons runs three sessions a year, in the fall, winter, and spring, taking the summer off, says Maxwell. A session costs $75 and runs 10-12 weeks. Most people start off renting their instruments from local music stores. “We keep the cost very low compared to other programs,” she says.

According to the NHIMA, the idea of senior adults learning and playing music was developed in 1991 by Dr. Roy Ernst of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. His philosophy has grown into an international program, with chapters across the U.S., Canada, England, Ireland, Iceland, and Australia.

“My philosophy was that anyone can learn to play music at a level that will bring a sense of accomplishment and the ability to perform in a group,” notes Ernst on the NHIMA website.

His philosophy also included a supportive style of instruction, free of competition, judgement and intimidation. Maxwell says the Bowmanville group reflects that style. “Don’t come and join us unless you have a good sense of humour,” she notes. “There’s always something to giggle about.”

Nonetheless, instruction comes from well-qualified teachers. “One of our blessings has been to have Lynda Shewchuk as our Music Director,” shays Maxwell. “She’s a graduate of the University of Western Ontario in music education and performance. She has all sorts of patience for us.”

Maxwell herself is a retired school teacher, having taught instrumental music at both the elementary and secondary levels. An accomplished flute player, she now plays the saxophone. “After playing the flute for 30 years, I had a senior moment and switched to sax,” she quips.

Her husband, Tony Maxwell, 74, a retired hospital administrator, plays the clarinet and the saxophone. “Tony and I believe that everyone should have a chance,” says Judith Maxwell, about why she started the group. “When we moved to this area, I wanted to do something for the community. Most of the activities are centered around sports. Some people want something on the arts side, other than art classes.”

Maxwell says that adults often need to increase their social contacts and activities in order to improve their quality of life as they age. According to the NHIMA, “There is a growing body of evidence that music making supports good mental and physical health. Early studies also indicate that music making can reduce depression and increase the strength of the immune system.”

Maxwell, who is a breast cancer survivor, says that as we live longer, we need to find ways of increasing our social contacts and activities. “These days, you can have a multitude of health issues, like me, and still live a long time,” she says. “I truly believe music is one of the top three activities for your brain as you get older. Even people with Alzheimer’s enjoy their music.”

The NHIMA states that many physical limitations, such as arthritis, and hearing and vision difficulties, can be accommodated in the group environment. For example, many of the wind instruments are lightweight and easy to hold, and musical scores can be enlarged for easier reading.

New Horizons meets at St. Paul’s United Church, 178 Church St., in Bowmanville, on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings. New members, especially those from the Orono and Newcastle area, are encouraged to join one of the new sessions starting in the fall. In the meantime, you can catch the New Horizons Concert Band in action at the Clarington Older Adult Association dance at the COAA Centre on Beech St., Bowmanville, on Friday, June 25th.

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