Irla Stewart lived in the small town of Goderich for 33 years. She had a community to be a part of. She had friends.
But when the 86-year-old moved to London with her husband six years ago, she felt alone for the first time.
“I didn’t do anything when I moved to London,” she said. “So, I joined the church choir. I had played the French horn, but I haven’t been playing it for quite a while.”
Stewart’s life in London changed when she learned about the New Horizons Adult Band through a member of the group. After she joined, the French horn player started getting together with other members to learn how to play their instruments.
“You get to know people in a different way when you join a group like the band,” she said. “When you’re here, there is so much more social time.”
New Horizons began as a New York State-based organization. Roy Ernst, a former music professor at the University of Rochester, established it in 1991 as an outreach program to bring together adults in the community. To this day, it gives members the opportunity to learn a new instrument, or to re-learn something they used to play, said Mark Enns, conductor for New Horizons’ advanced group.
“Some of the members may have played in high school. Then, when they go off to university, find jobs, get married and have kids, they don’t get a chance to play for a stretch of time,” Enns said. “Then, 20 or 30 years down the road, they’re looking around, they’ve got a little extra time, and they see they have an instrument collecting dust under a bed someplace and they want to take it up again.”
Art Barron, 88, plays the trombone in the same group as Stewart. He started playing in 1942 in high school, but gave it up for 60 years to focus on other priorities. When he decided to join New Horizons years later, he was able to reignite his passion.
“I joined because I really wanted to play the trombone again,” Barron said. “It’s a great community. There are doctors, there’s a retired pastor, and I’m an engineer. There are all kinds of people that join. ”
Established in 1999, New Horizons’ London chapter was started by Betty Anne Younker, the current dean of the Don Wright Faculty of Music, and colleagues Paul Woodford and Don Stephenson. Younker, a strong advocate for music education, pushed to make the New Horizons an extension of the faculty. It also became the first New Horizons chapter in Canada, and is one of the largest programs of the more than 50 across North America.
“The New Horizons Band represents lifelong learning, commitment to education and community outreach at its very best,” Younker said.
Enns explained New Horizons currently has about 180 members grouped under five different levels based on their skills. Any adult interested in playing music or learning how, can join and the members range in age from late 20s to late 80s.
Members from all levels meet every Saturday from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. in Talbot College and rehearse for about 10 weeks at a time. Members register and pay about $200-240 online to join the summer, fall or winter term.
Enns mentioned the Beginning, Beginning II and Intermediate groups train individually for one hour with a music student from Western. They then get together in their respective groups and practise for one hour.
“It’s great both ways. The adults get the instruction and the doors open on these instruments, and the students here will have their own recitals and their adult students come to their concerts,” Enns said. “It’s a great reciprocal bonding that happens; it really helps develop communities.”
The Advanced and Advanced II groups meet on the same day as the other three levels, but they jump right into playing and don’t get individual lessons, Enns said.
The London chapter selects members, mostly from the advanced groups, to tour and perform across Europe every two years. The group has travelled to Berlin, France, Budapest, Prague and Vienna in the past.
Stewart and Barron feel like they are part of a community that is built through music-making. They routinely practise their instruments during rehearsals giving members a chance to keep their skills sharp.
“As you get older, you really need to challenge yourself with new things and if you don’t then you stagnate and you get dull,” Stewart said. “I find I have the challenge and I have the joy playing with the group which is a great feeling.”
All five groups rehearse and at the end of their term they participate in a concert. Friends and family are invited to see what the New Horizons members have accomplished. The advanced group also puts on a Christmas concert that usually takes place at Covent Garden Market in downtown London.
“It’s wonderful that people of all ages can continue to learn and that’s what we are doing,” Stewart said. “It’s a learning experience more so than anything.”