When Roy Ernst, a professor at the Eastman School of Music, decided in 1991 to form a group of seniors from around Rochester with little or no musical experience, he was not looking to change the world.
He wanted to give people he considered stuck in the past, disconnected from their present and future, a chance to improve their lives by making music. He called his ensemble New Horizons.
“I often say that music connects people with life,” says Ernst, who is now retired. “And probably most importantly, it connects you to other people.”
Thirty years later, the group he founded here has grown into the New Horizons International Music Association, a large nonprofit network of 10,000 participants in over 230 groups and orchestras operating in 42 states, five Canadian provinces and Australia.
In Rochester alone, New Horizons features three wind orchestras, three orchestras, two jazz orchestras, separate flute, clarinet and saxophone groups, and a choir.
The organization plans to celebrate its 30th anniversary with a concert at 8 p.m. on October 29 at Kodak Hall at the Eastman Theater. The concert includes the world premiere of “Ceremony and Celebration” by Larry Neeck, co-director of New Horizons’ Concert Band and Symphonic Band.
“It’s just to show the exuberance and the joy of the music,” says Neeck of the composition, “and then the joy that comes from being able to play in a band, and the joy shared in the music that all these people get. “
He describes the participants of New Horizons as “courageous and courageous people who have chosen to surpass themselves”.
Anyone can join New Horizons these days, but the organization still tends to attract people over the age of 50 who return to music later in life or find it for the first time.
Many of those who join a New Horizons ensemble have given up on an instrument they played in their youth and aspire to return to it. They see their participation not only as a chance to reconnect with themselves younger, but also to expand their social circles into an art-creating community.
Clarinetist Sue Ames had not purchased an instrument since high school before she began playing with New Horizons in 2005 upon her retirement. She says the social aspect of the group is essential for her.
“There’s something really special about playing music together,” she says.
Trumpeter Michael Doolin had a similar return to music. He says he hadn’t played for 60 years, since he was a student at the Aquinas Institute in Rochester.
“That’s really the whole point of New Horizons,” says Doolin. “It is not too late.”
Ernst says New Horizons was meant to be an example for those who wanted to create bands in their communities and debunk the narrative that one might be too old to start making music.
“Before New Horizons started, the general feeling was that there was a window of opportunity in elementary school where you could start on an instrument,” he says.
Many New Horizons musicians are retired from medical, legal, engineering, and education fields and wanted to do something different. Some had no previous musical experience.
“People without any musical training can start, they can learn to read music, and they can learn to play an instrument,” Ernst explains. He also likes to say to musicians, “In New Horizons your best is pretty good.
In addition to regular rehearsals, group members can participate in group lessons. Ernst says this kind of education is vital.
“A person who is new to an instrument by taking private lessons tends to lose interest if they are not part of a group,” he says.
The pandemic has caused major complications, making in-person rehearsals and group classes almost impossible. The band had to rehearse on Zoom using a program called SmartMusic, which allows musicians to perform on a professional recording. They couldn’t hear each other, but getting to know the music was better than no rehearsal at all.
“The big part is the camaraderie – being around other people,” says Petar Kodzas, dean of Eastman Community Music School. “So I think this is the part that has been seriously contested.”
The New Horizons anniversary concert will be the ensemble’s first since the start of the pandemic.
There is an excited but concentrated energy among the musicians. Playing live is a big part of it, but it’s also an opportunity to socialize and interact face-to-face.
“That’s the beauty of the ensemble: it’s not just about the music,” says Neeck. “It’s about company, it’s about surpassing yourself, doing something new, staying vital, staying alive.”
This story includes a report by April Franklin.
Daniel J. Kushner is the artistic writer for CITY. He can be contacted at [email protected]