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New Horizons' ageless symphony


It's an extremely bright Tuesday morning outside the First Unitarian Church on South Winton. A symphony of lawnmowers hums in the distance. Birds chirp loudly and kids being dropped off for daycare from an endless convoy of mini-vans chirp even louder. It ain't Peer Gynt, but it's beautiful.

And over this springtime cacophony, the sound of horns. They blast. They halt. They blast again. Clearly someone is rehearsing inside. It's 9 in the morning. Who rehearses at 9 in the morning?

Set out in the church's main chapel is The New Horizons Band, 70 members strong with a conductor. It looks like a serious setup yet this is an amateur group of seniors. They're rehearsing. And it's 9 a.m. I've yet to meet pros so diligent.

New Horizons was founded in 1991 by then Eastman School Of Music professor Roy Ernst as a way for senior adults to continue playing an instrument, return to an instrument, or pick up one for the first time. Tuba players Chick and Sue Wolf, 72 and 73, respectively, are of the latter two categories.

"I had always wanted to play in a band," says Sue. "And I never had the chance." She adopted one of her husband's old tubas that had been "lying around the house."

"So I came in with my tuba and they taught me," she says.

Chick had played throughout high school and college. He dropped music for his career, and credits Sue for getting him back on the horn horse after retirement.

"I like to say she plays tuba because I play tuba," Chick says. "And I play tuba because she plays tuba."

New Horizons' main requirement is simple: a desire to play.

"One of the ideas Roy Ernst had originally was 'Your best is good enough,"' says conductor Ed Mizma. Mizma has been with New Horizons since the beginning, having earned his music masters degree from Eastman after retiring from Kodak. "And it works. The enthusiasm they bring to the party is really good."

At this particular rehearsal, conductor Dick Sitts leads the group through selections from The Barber Of Seville. He stops to instruct in certain problem areas --- a sour note, a shift in time --- yet lets other things go. He pushes the group but is still gentle and patient.

New Horizons is more about fun than rudiments and perfection.

"If you can't play some of the notes, you leave them out," Sue says. "And you play the rest of them."

There is no audition process with New Horizons, although there is a nominal tuition fee. Members advance at their own pace, and since they fall under the jurisdiction of the Eastman School of Music, the school sends students to mentor the players.

"It was fun right away," says Sue. "We started in a small class and we sounded just awful. We'd sit in there and giggle, we sounded so terrible. But we just kept working at it and when you feel ready, you join the regular band."

Since its inception in 1991 New Horizons has branched out to more than 120 groups throughout the United States. The Rochester branch has various ensembles: a beginners band, an intermediate band, a dance band, and a more advance symphonic band. The total program has approximately 160 members of varying ages.

"There are a few youngsters around 50," Sue says. "And a 92-year-old tuba player." In fact, New Horizons sports several members in their 90s.

The various incarnations of New Horizons play at least once a month at churches, community events, outdoor festivals, senior living facilities, and nursing homes. The big gig is the annual springtime concert at The Eastman Theatre, where they routinely pull in close to 2,000 fans --- including a lot of grandkids.

Mizma recalls one of the band's first concerts.

"The thing that I noticed was here are these people with grey hair hanging onto the instruments, playing," he says. "And grandkids out in the audience --- just the opposite of what you'd see at a fourth or fifth grade band thing. It was a wonderful role reversal."

"We used to say, 'This is payback time,'" Sue says. "You've gone to hear all your grandkids play, now they can come and hear you."

The New Horizons Band Of Rochester presents its 15th Annual Spring Concert Tuesday, May 30, at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs Street, 274-1100, at 7 p.m. Free. All