May the Band Play on Forever

Dick Johnson started playing the trombone in the seventh grade. He wanted to play the French horn. “When I was in the sixth grade,” he says, “we had a music room at the elementary school and they had all the instruments of the orchestra in big pictures and I saw the French horn. The French horn has all these curls and I thought, ‘Oh, man, that would be beautiful.’ So I went home and told my dad I wanted to play the French horn. He said, ‘No, you’re not. You’re going to play the trombone because we’ve got a trombone out at the farm.”

It may not have been love at first sight, but the relationship between Dick and his trombone grew tight and strong and he’s been playing it ever since. Right now he plays in The Alumni Band in Biddeford and the Italian Heritage Center Concert Band in Portland.

I got to sit in on a recent rehearsal at the Italian Heritage Center. What a treat! That’s where I met up with Dick.

“I like playing with other people in a band,” he told me, “because in the trombone section you have first, second, and third trombone, so you have some nice harmonies right within the section. I love the sound of several trombones playing harmony together. It’s just a very rich full sound that I like along with how you fit in with the rest of the band. I just love being in the band.”

Dick Johnson on the trombone

Learning how to play an instrument as a child and sticking with it all these years — I almost forgot to mention, Dick is 80 — has given him many satisfying moments, and it may have also helped stave off some of the effects of aging.

Researchers at Northwestern University recently published a study that showed musicians have fewer age-related memory and hearing losses than non-musicians. They attached electrodes to the heads of 87 people with normal hearing aged 18 to 65. The electrodes measured how long it took for their brains to process a sound signal. The older you get, the more difficult it is. Compared to their non-musician peers, the older study participants who learned music as a child and kept up with it were able to process the sounds just as fast as the younger participants.

Music to a musician’s ears!

Hopefully, Sharman West will reap some cognitive rewards from learning to play an instrument as a child, even though she set it aside for 40 years and only took it up again as a “mature” adult. Like Dick, she also didn’t get to play her instrument of choice. It was her mother who made the decision.

“When I was in the fifth grade, my friend Bernadette was getting a clarinet and I wanted a clarinet. My mother said, ‘No, you will play the glockenspiel!”

A glockenspiel is a percussion instrument with tuned steel bars arranged in two rows, which you can see in the picture of Sharman below.

Sharman counting rests

Recently retired, Sharman is a percussionist in the Alumni and the Italian Heritage Center Bands. Along with her glockenspiel she gets to play “lots of toys, like the triangle and the tambourine and the cymbals.”

Pleased with herself for clanging her cymbals at just the right moment!

You might think playing percussion is easy because there are usually lots and lots of rests, but counting those rests takes lots and lots of concentration and brainpower, says Sharman. “With percussion,” she explains, “you can have 80, 90 rests and then BING! So, you count 80, 90 — BING! And you hope you get it!”

She certainly didn’t miss a beat when I was looking.

Susie Jones may not have to count quite as many rests as Sharman, but as a musician, she has to be a master at focused concentration. She took piano lessons as a child and also has fond memories of playing the ukulele with her father on the front porch in the summertime. Mostly she sang.

It wasn’t until she hit her fifties that Susie took on a new musical challenge. “When I was 55 I decided that I had always wanted to play a trumpet and I’d better do it now. I started taking some lessons and then I started playing in bands. I play in a lot of groups now, it’s pretty much taken over my life.”

Learning how to play an instrument is generally more difficult for an adult than a child, says Nina Oatley, who is the band’s conductor and also teaches clarinet and saxophone. The biggest stumbling block? Adults think too much! “I try to get my older students to do less thinking,” she says, “and more hearing and allowing the music to just flow.”

So, even though playing an instrument may help your cognitive abilities, it can also help you to get out of that brain of yours as well!

Susie Jones and her euphonium

Apparently, Susie didn’t have any trouble learning because she took up yet another instrument. After three years on the trumpet she started playing the euphonium, which is an octave below a trumpet and an octave above a tuba. She says, “I just loved the sound because it’s lower brass and I love the lower brass.”

Have you noticed how much love and happiness there seems to be among these band players?

Sharman says, “There’s a lightness and joy here. It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re here as a musician and that is the common ground. There is no separation. It gives me a full heart.”

In the 16 years Nina has been conducting the Italian Heritage Center Band, she’s witnessed quite a bit of fullness of heart — whether in sadness or in joy, members are always there for each other.

And although I may have given the impression, not everyone in the band is a senior citizen. In fact, several generations are represented, including high school and college students. Age — at either of the spectrum, simply does not matter when you’re making music together.

“It has become a really strong community,” says Nina. “It’s more like a family where I think people feel really supported by members of the group. And they love to visit with each other. When we take a rehearsal break it’s hard to get them to come back sometimes!”

Italian Heritage Center Concert Band in rehearsal

Whether or not we’re willing to admit it, feeling the love is important to us humans, especially as we get older. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, depression among people aged 65 and older is extremely common and often doesn’t get treated because people thinks it’s just a normal part of aging. It’s not. Unfortunately, many elderly people live alone and don’t have a strong support network, which is a factor that may contribute to depression.

Social interaction is a huge benefit of playing in the band, says Ted Manduca, who is closing in on 81. “It gives you a reason to get out of the house. Many people spend so much time on the computer now they become hermits and they lose the social interaction.”

Ted Manduca and his blue trombone

Ted seems like a pretty outgoing guy who enjoys being around people. He also has a sense of humor. When I asked him to describe what it’s like to “get in the zone” when he’s playing his trombone, without skipping a beat, he replied, “Well it’s not as good as sex, but it’s not bad!”

When he stopped grinning, he added, “Sometimes when you’re playing, if something comes off just right, there’s a magic moment that occurs.”

By the way, Ted also has his own 18-piece band — the Ted Manduca Band — and they are always available, if you happen to have an upcoming event.

An upcoming event for The Italian Heritage Center Concert Band is a Movie Madness concert Sunday, May 6 at 2pm at the Italian Heritage Center.

I highly recommend you go hear them play because they’re wonderful and because listening to music that you enjoy can be just as beneficial to your health and wellness as playing it. See you at the concert!