Elizabeth Downs played piano when she was 14 years old. Then she dabbled a little on guitar, on and off. Music was always a part of her life growing up — until it sort of disappeared.
But not too long ago, a brochure from East End Arts caught her eye. It announced the formation of a new band program.
Downs lacked confidence at first, as she’d never performed in a band, and was reluctant to attend the first gathering. However, her love of music drove her to join. She chose a new instrument, the oboe, and became a member of the New Horizons band.
The program, the first of its kind on the East End, offers adults over age 50 an opportunity to make music — including people with little to no musical experience. New Horizons, an international organization sponsored locally by East End Arts, provides a chance to learn brand-new skills and advance to playing concert band music together.
The New Horizons International Music Association was founded 25 years ago by Roy Ernst, chairman of the music education department at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. There are now more than 215 New Horizons bands worldwide, with over 9,000 participants on three continents.
The local group gathers at the Peconic Community Center in Peconic and is led by Matthew Gardiner, a musician, educator and director who earned a Bachelor of Arts in music and a master’s degree in music education from Hunter College in New York.
The local band has just completed its first year together and even performed a concert in Peconic this June. Its members continue to produce clearer sound while gaining confidence and enjoying both the challenge of learning new pieces and the socialization that comes naturally in this setting.
“There is educational validity to New Horizons,” Gardiner said. “It’s a well-rounded experience for these participants, improving talent as well as mental and social skills. Plus, they continue to motivate me as an instructor.”
Gardiner also shared that the 50-plus group brings a different aspect to teaching in contrast to younger students.
“Adults are self-inspired,” he said. “They just need direction in order to stoke the fire.”
The experience New Horizons offers has a great impact on participants, he said, and the benefits are numerous. These include physical, mental and social health for aging individuals, as well as coordination of senses, memory and motor skills. The band also creates a community, as students work together and assist each other.
“We’re all in the same soup bowl,” Downs said. “Matt is amazing. He had a vision of what all of us could achieve as a group and formed an actual ensemble.”
Downs plans to continue with New Horizons in September and would like to recruit more members. She shares her musical success story with just about everyone she meets.
Band member Paul Nadel, who plays the flute, encourages “jumping back in” and following the notion of picking up that instrument you used to play or have always wanted to play. At 58, he’s been playing the flute for about four years, taking lessons and practicing every day. Music is a major part of his life and his family’s life as well.
Nadel had been looking for others on the North Fork with an interest in music when he learned about New Horizons through his instructor. He’d never played in a band and didn’t know what to expect, but now says he “gained a lot from this successful experience.”
Nadel continues to play flute with a group of friends over the summer and also helps promote his son’s blossoming musical career.
In addition to Downs and Nadel, the East End’s New Horizons band also includes a saxophone player and a percussionist. Each musician has a new confidence with their instrument, whether they played before or not.
Diane Giardi, education director at East End Arts, said: “This program has given its members a chance to try something new and feel an overall sense of accomplishment.
“It is our goal to increase awareness about the band because as it grows, it will only get better for everyone,” she continued. “The group is not simply playing for the end goal of a performance, but more for the joy of playing.”
The New Horizons band will begin its next semester in September, meeting on Wednesday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon at the Peconic Community Center.
Top photo: Matthew Gardiner. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
This story originally appeared in the 2016 edition of northforker 50 Plus