Carol Neubert took piano lessons for several years when she was growing up, learned to read music and figured out how to play the instrument — to a degree.
“My right hand can play the piano well, and my left hand plays well, but they do not play well together,” Neubert said with a laugh, as she sat in the living room of her Northampton home on a recent morning.
But Neubert, who’s 70, is still making music. Several years ago she took up the clarinet, and it has become a vital part of her life, something that gives her satisfaction — and joy — in a way the piano didn’t.
And there’s no difficulty getting Neubert to practice: She does it willingly, for an hour every day. “I find it addictive,” she said.
But it’s not just for herself. Her husband, Alex, took up the trumpet at the same time, and the couple are now part of a group made up of seniors playing music for the first time, or playing after years of putting their instruments aside.
The Pioneer Valley New Horizons Band (NHB), started late last year, is one of more than 175 such senior groups across the U.S. and other countries, but the first in western Massachusetts. It’s a natural addition to an area that’s also home to the celebrated Young@Heart Chorus.
The local chapter of the NHB is a collaboration between the Northampton Community Music Center (which provides lesson space and administers the program), the University of Massachusetts Amherst music program (which provides student music teachers and a band director) and the Northampton Senior Center (which provides rehearsal space for the whole band).
Started in 1991 by a former professor at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., the NHB program is based on the premise that not only can older adults learn to play an instrument, but doing so can generate emotional and social benefits as well.
Just ask the Neuberts, who live in the Lathrop Community for Senior Independent Living, off of Bridge Road. They say the best part of playing in the NHB, which they helped get started and now has 14 members, might be the sense of camaraderie they get from making music — however inexpert it might be — with other people.
“This is not a professional group,” said Carol Neubert. “We’re kind of like a fourth-grade band. But everyone is so supportive of one another.”
Alex Neubert agrees. He had sung in choral groups before, but he’d only briefly played an instrument — the clarinet — in elementary school before taking up the trumpet in 2009.
“The group’s motto is, ‘Your best is good enough,’ because it’s really about making the effort,” he said. “Besides, we can already be hard enough on ourselves.”
Working on their sound
On a recent weekday morning, 10 of the local NHB members gathered in the common building at the Northampton Lathrop Community for their first band rehearsal since late spring. It’s a comfortable space, warmly lit by several full-length windows; couches and upholstered chairs were located along the walls. The players sat on straight-back chairs in the room’s center.
Sara Jones, an enthusiastic UMass Amherst music professor who directs the group, welcomed members back and said, “Let’s start with a nice concert F.”
After the musicians — three clarinetists, two people each on trumpet, trombone and flute, and one saxophonist — sounded the note, Jones got each player to tune his or her instrument to her hand-held tuner. Then she had the group work through a couple of songs, including a basic march built around minor chords.
There were some squeaks from the clarinets and some errant notes elsewhere, and the tempo was uneven. Jones halted the group a few times and had them replay some song sections, offering words of encouragement and advice: “If you’re a beat behind, you’ve got to catch up.”
The sound started to jell on “Guantanamera,” a Cuban folk song that had a sort of call and response between the brass and woodwinds.
“Nice job on that,” Jones said. “It’s a little tricky without the alto sax, but you all hung in there.”
Jones, who has taught music at a number of levels, including in elementary schools, also worked as a student assistant with two New Horizons Bands in Michigan and Illinois; this is the first time she has directed one. She sees some parallels between the NHB program and band programs for elementary-school children, but she says older musicians have some advantages.
“They’re curious, they’re excited, they want to be here,” she said of the local NHB players, who first began rehearsing this past winter. “Plus they have time, and the willingness, to practice and develop their skills.”
Elementary-school bands, Jones noted, “can be more of a mixed bag,” with some kids playing instruments primarily because their parents want them to. Older musicians also tend to be less frustrated at making slow progress at first, she said.
On the other hand, older players can have physical issues — hearing or vision loss, or arthritis, for instance — that need to be addressed. For the latter reason, the flute of one of the NHB players has been adjusted to make it easier for her to manipulate the keys, Jones said.
Finding music for the NHB can also be a challenge, she notes; she looks for material that has a balance of playability, player interest (such as jazz) and potential to develop people’s skills. “If I think the flutes need to increase their range, I’ll look for a piece that does that.”
The bottom line, adds Jones, is that music is accessible for all NHB members. “When I hear someone say, ‘I’m not musical’ or ‘I’m too old to play an instrument,’ I say, ‘You come and you will learn,’ ” she said. “This is the safest environment to do that.”
The impetus for the Pioneer Valley NHB came from the Neuberts, who moved to Northampton about two and a half years ago from Canton, N.Y. The retired couple — Carol had been a public-school special-education teacher and administrator, Alex a college physics professor — wanted to downsize, and one of their three daughters lives in the region and teaches at the Northfield Mount Hermon School.
One drawback here, a region they otherwise love, said Carol Neubert, was that there was no NHB. The couple had joined one several years earlier in Canton, and they missed playing in a group.
They did join the Florence Community Band, Carol said, but much of that group’s music was beyond their reach. “They were very supportive, but there was only so much we could play.”
Last fall, the Neuberts met with Jason Trotta, the director of Northampton Community Music Center, to talk about the possibility of forming a NHB in the Valley. By coincidence, she says, Trotta had been looking for some way to get older beginning students involved with instrumental music. “Jason was ecstatic about our idea,” she said.
In fact, Trotta had been mulling over the idea of starting a NHB, given he’d been hearing good reports from community music centers he knew of elsewhere in the country that were involved with the program. “When Alex and Carol came to see me, I said ‘OK, it’s time,’ ” he said.
Alex Neubert plastered the region with flyers to get the word out about the NHB, and Trotta worked with the UMass music department to engage students to give small group lessons and to hire Jones to be band director. He also connected with the Northampton Senior Center to arrange for rehearsal space, and with Falcetti Music in Springfield to make rental instruments available for band members.
Initial funding for the program has come from the Lathrop Retirement Communities of Northampton and Easthampton, and more recently from the Northampton Arts Council, said Trotta; he adds that having 20 members in the band should provide enough funds to make NHB self-sufficient.
The Neuberts say they hope to increase the band’s membership this fall — there’s a $120 fee for the semester — when regular lessons and band rehearsals (and a few public performances) will resume. Ideally they’ll find people like John Langhans, of Haydenville, and Kathryn McArthur, of Northampton, who joined this year to play trombone.
Both had played the instrument through high school in the early 1960s, then put it aside for decades, only to pick it up again in the past year. “I played a B-flat major scale, and I was thrilled I could still do it,” said McArthur. “And now I’m doing much more — it’s wonderful.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out more about the Pioneer Valley New Horizons Band, call the Northampton Community Music Center at 584-0001 or visit ncmc.net. There will also be a “meet-and-greet” at NCMC on Aug. 31st at 10:00 a.m.
Information about New Horizons Music can be found at newhorizonsmusic.org.