“When I started the New Horizons program in 1991,” says Dr. Roy Ernst, founder of the New Horizons Music Association, “it was widely believed that older people could not learn to read music and play an instrument. The thought was that if you missed the opportunity in childhood, you wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Thirty years after Ernst founded New Horizons at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, there are 187 New Horizons instrumental groups featuring musicians 55 years old and older in the U.S., Canada and abroad, including a chapter in Gulfport. Under Ernst’s direction, The New Horizons Band of Gulfport was to give a concert at the Gulfport Casino on July 11 to celebrate the movement’s 30th anniversary.
Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Elsa scrapped those plans – the group had to cancel practices ahead of the event – and brought the season to an early close, but the founder says the group will carry on well into the future.
“The special mission of New Horizons is to create an entry point to music making for people with no musical background,” Ernst says. “I intended the New Horizons program as a model to show that retired people with no musical background could successfully learn music and that many of them would choose to do so if given the opportunity.”
Ernst taught at Eastman for 25 years, serving as chair of the music education department for 12 years. Interested in proving the value music adds to the lives of older adults – be they new to the practice or returning to an instrument – he started the first New Horizons Band at Eastman.
“I created the New Horizons program because I felt that retired people would benefit in many ways: the joy of making music with other people,” he says, pointing out that diving into an instrument and a musical group can pay off big for adults on a number physical, mental and social levels.
“Playing music gives the brain a good workout,” Ernst says. “Our band will be playing music that sometimes requires playing eight or more notes per second. The brain needs to do a lot of processing to do that and make it fit all the other music. I like to say that a musical instrument is a bicycle for the brain.”
Beyond keeping the brain sharp, Ernst says music has a way of keeping humans emotionally grounded.
“In our Gulfport band, we are connected to our past when we play music we love from the past,” he says. “We are connected to the present by music that we are learning right now, and we are connected to the future by goals in the future.”
Even though he intended the first New Horizons program to serve as a model for others three decades ago, Ernst says he never imagined how his program would grow and spread.
“The growth of New Horizons Music was beyond my wildest expectations,” he says. “We have New Horizons camps in many parts of North America where people come together from all over. We will have a New Horizons tour of Ireland next June.”
The founder is quick to note that the New Horizons Band of Gulfport is always welcoming to new players.
“No audition needed – drop in and give it a try,” he says. “A class for absolute beginners will be offered next year.”
For updates and more on New Horizons, find the Gulfport band on Facebook or visit newhorizonsbandgulfport.org.