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Master Class

Strike Up the BandJoining band or orchestra in your 60s? Your 70s? Even 80s? Sue Ames ’81N (MS) shares what she’s learned in more than 15 years with Eastman-Rochester New Horizons.Interview by Karen McCally ’02 (PhD)
University of Rochester alumna in New Horizons band(Illustration: David Cowles for the University of Rochester)

Sue Ames ’81N (MS)

Retired associate professor of nursing, Monroe Community College
Clarinetist, Eastman-Rochester New Horizons concert band

Favorite performance number: “ ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’ I’m in the band, so we do a lot of marches. I love it when we play ‘Stars and Stripes’—it’s so invigorating. So that’s a favorite for me. That’s a favorite for a lot of people.”

I was in the band through high school, where I played the clarinet, and I sang in the choir. And as I look back, those were two of my favorite activities. But when high school finished, I thought, “Well, you know, that’s it.” I did sing in the choir in college a little bit but never continued the clarinet and didn’t really think too much about it. Then, before I retired, I saw this article in the paper about New Horizons, and I thought, “Wow, I guess maybe I could get the clarinet out again.” So, I cut the article out and put it in my file of activities I would do when I retired. And when I retired in 2005, I immediately got involved with New Horizons.

New Horizons was started 30 years ago at Eastman by Roy Ernst, who is now a professor emeritus. His idea was to offer retired people at any level, including the beginner, the opportunity to play a musical instrument as part of an ensemble. But there is no minimum age, and New Horizons programs are all over the United States and Canada and in Australia.

Our Rochester group is affiliated with the Eastman Community Music School. We have more than 200 people involved, who are part of one or more of 15 ensembles, as well as a chorus, for participants at all different levels. The beauty of the program is that many people who join New Horizons have no musical background. We get a lot of people who say, “Oh, I always wanted to play the trumpet, or the violin”—whatever. Many others are like me, having played in school and are now picking up their instrument again. And then there are some who have been playing all along.

When I first picked up a clarinet again, it felt familiar. I remembered how to put it together, how to put the reed on, and how to play and be part of a band. The biggest challenge was getting my embouchure back. That’s your mouth position. You have to build those muscles up again. Because I was new, I had no idea what level of play I was at. I started in the Green Band, which is for beginners. I did that for a year and it got me back in the groove. Then I moved on up to our concert band, which is our intermediate level.

We rehearse two days a week. One day we’re in full band and the other we’re in sectionals, where we have mentors who are Eastman students. It’s so wonderful the relationship we develop with them. It’s kind of funny for them when they first start with us, because most of us are old enough to be their grandparents. And we just hang on every word that they share with us. We benefit from their knowledge and expertise. And they benefit from us because they see that life can be exciting and full when you’re older.

I do wish I played better. Many people in New Horizons, myself included, take lessons on the side.

But a strong current throughout the program is, in Roy’s words, “your best is good enough.” There’s a social component, too. During rehearsals we have a break— a coffee hour—so that people can mix. We’ve all developed friendships that extend beyond coming to rehearsals and playing concerts.

There is something special about playing in a group. You can play individually, but playing in a group is like a team sport. We come together, we learn our parts, we listen to each other, we listen across the ensemble, and we have to work with a conductor. Then there’s game-day support when we have a concert. We all want to do well, and we get really focused—into the zone, so to speak.

We encounter challenges that come with aging, of course. We have people who’ve gotten special glasses, and one of our members, in his 90s, carries his tuba in on a cart. Our wind is not the same as our mentors from Eastman. But we persevere. The benefits are physical and mental. It keeps us engaged in life.

Editor’s note: The New Horizons program for adult musicians celebrated its 30th birthday in 2021. Founded at the Eastman School of Music, it has grown to nearly 200 chapters around North America and Australia.