SANDPOINT — Imagine what could happen if you took a bunch of former band instrument players, lumped them together with a passel of wannabe musicians and got them under the same roof to rehearse every week. Before long, you might have an orchestra on your hands.
The Sandpoint New Horizons Orchestra did just that and, for the past three years, the group has continued to welcome complete novices and rusty players alike into this adult beginners’ musical ensemble. Something’s working, because the group now claims 20 regular members who travel from as far away as Troy, Mont., Spirit Lake and Bonners Ferry to make rehearsals.
Many of the players had never touched an instrument of any kind before joining the group, according to conductor Beth Weber.
“It’s a really safe place for closet musicians to come out,” she said. “Everyone is compassionate with one another.”
Any time a person realizes a long-held dream, there is inspiration for the rest of us. But some of the stories behind how people came to this beginners’ orchestra — and the benefits they now gain from being there — tell how making music can be a life-affirming experience.
One member had suffered a brain injury from an auto accident and wondered if the memory loss that plagued her recovery would affect her ability to learn to play the violin. Weber talked her into giving it a try. Today, she is one of the stalwarts in the violin section.
“She says being in the orchestra has changed her life,” the conductor said. “But it’s her own hard work that did that.
“Another one of our members had cancer and had to stop coming for a while,” she went on. “She got through the chemo and came back to us. It’s nice to have something positive to come back to when you outgrow a trauma.”
Weber is directly responsible for building a lively string instrument scene in the area, having started two separate youth orchestras in the schools before adding the adult group to the mix. All three groups will combine for a holiday-themed concert on Dec. 16, when each will play a handful of numbers during a 1 p.m. show at the Bonner Mall.
“We call it a ‘triple orchestra concert,’” said Weber. “There will be a total of 50 string players between the three groups. The youngest player is 6 and the oldest is almost 80 — that’s a pretty good range.”
Already entrenched with her youth orchestras, the conductor discovered the adult-centered direction after hearing about a New Horizons ensemble in Spokane. A quick web search led her to the organization’s site, where she learned that, from the time the movement started in 1991, membership has grown to the point that more than 8,500 adult musicians now enjoy playing in a New Horizons orchestra or choral group of one kind or another. As the groups started to crop up around the U.S. and Canada, people latched on to the healing powers of music for myriad reasons. Some had lost a spouse or recently survived a disease. Others were looking to overcome the persistent voice of a long-ago choir or band teacher who left a scar by telling them they lacked talent. The first New Horizons group took the stand that it would be inclusive, not exclusive, inviting anyone who was interested to join. The word spread like wildfire and there now are more than 200 active groups in North America. Enthusiasm has snowballed to the point that the organization now offers annual music camps for its mostly retired members.
At first, Weber subscribed to the organization’s premise that members should be 50 and over to participate.
“But it didn’t stay that way,” she said. “Any adult who is a beginner or low-intermediate player is welcome to come join us.”
Over the past century, an average of nearly 20 percent of U.S. school children took part in band programs. After reaching an age where their kids are grown and work schedules no longer control their lives, a surprisingly large number of these people rethink their priorities and want to return to music making for pure enjoyment.
Those who first joined the Sandpoint New Horizons Orchestra found it a painless way to re-engage in playing, the conductor pointed out.
“The music we play is rated 1 through 5 for difficulty,” she said. “We actually started out with a piece that was rated one-half.”
Though still basic at its core, the current repertoire is impressive in its scope. At the Dec. 16 Bonner Mall performance, orchestra members will play themes from Handel’s “Messiah,” as well as selected carols from Germany, France, Russia and Romania.
The orchestra members are a dedicated lot, the conductor said, and have developed a taste for getting out in public to share the fruits of their labor.
“We do two concerts a year and they want to do more,” Weber shared. “Everybody is interested in playing more ‘gigs,’ so to speak.”
More than being loyal to the group, the older musicians are loyal to the music itself. Once they have worked together to take the hill of learning a piece, they are reluctant to lose that ground.
“When my youth orchestras are finished with a piece, they hand it back — they could care less after that,” Weber said. “My grown-ups want to hold onto theirs so they can keep working on it.”
The Sandpoint New Horizons Orchestra is atypical, when compared with other ensembles around North America, in that it is one of only four string orchestras in the organization’s stable of groups. It also differs from traditional music groups in another way — physical limitations that might put an end to involvement in some settings are taken in stride for this collection of musicians.
“Several of our members wear hearing aids and lots of us have aches and pains that sometimes affect our ability to play,” the conductor said. “We’re all surviving together, in that respect.”
For more information on joining the Sandpoint New Horizons Orchestra, contact Weber at (208) 263-1151. To learn more about the history of the organization, go online to www.newhorizonsmusic.org.