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Playing Music Exercises Aging Brains

Evening Edition

Above: As part of our Envision series an aging, arts reporter Angela Carone brings us this profile of the passionate musicians in the North Coastal New Horizons Band.

Research shows that playing music is a great way to exercise your brain as you get older. And of course exercising in a group is much more fun. Just ask 86-year-old Gerald Bongard.

On Wednesday nights, he goes to the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad for band practice. This isn't your typical band practice. The men and women lugging instruments into the Museum are almost all retired and over 50 years old. They play in the North Coastal New Horizons Band.

"I started to play when I was 10 years old in the Depression, and at that time it was very, very difficult to get the kind of musical training I really wanted," Bongard said. "This is really a second opportunity for me. It’s a great sense of satisfaction and pleasure that I get from it. Not because of my playing, but the opportunity to play with other people."

Allison Hargis is the director of the North Coastal New Horizons Band. She says many of the band members benefit from socializing.

"You know, the camaraderie at this stage in their lives is really important. We have people who are losing spouses, people who are newly retired and don’t really know what to do. This provides a big outlet for them."

Michelle Godhino, 52, plays her father's trombone in New Horizon's band. "My dad passed away in 2009 of pancreatic cancer and up to the end of his life, he was still involved with his own band. Growing up, I didn’t have a connection with this instrument. It was his. And now I play it and it’s a lot of fun and challenging."

Godhino was a true beginner when she started two years ago, unable to read music. Now she's at the intermediate level and plays alongside Susan and Brian Billing, 64 and 67 respectively. Susan Billing says she picked up the clarinet because research says playing music keeps older brains functioning well.

"My mom is 95 and I want to live that long, too, and I want to be able to think the whole time I’m living," she said. Her husband Brian, who plays the drums in New Horizons, has a deadpan sense of humor. He quipped, "Now you tell me."

Hargis says New Horizons "provides an entry point for adults, that either missed the chance to play music in a group or did for a little while and then had to give it up for other responsibilities or career choices."

The last time Brian Billings played drums was in the Rose Parade in 1963. He says you remember a lot, and yet other aspects are challenging at his age. "Counting the rhythm, I hadn’t forgotten that that much. Now it's harder to get my wrists limber and learning to count the rests and stuff."

Susan Billing chimed in: "You remember the fingering and you remember where the notes are and how to read the rhythm and stuff. This year, though, the intermediate band, with all our flats and sharps, is more of a challenge."

Hargis said the biggest challenge for older learning musicians "is that they know how it’s supposed to sound, whereas an 8 or 10 year old, coming in is just happy to make a sound! But an adult, who has life experience listening to music, they know what it's supposed to sound like."

There are three levels to the North Coastal New Horizons band: beginning, intermediate and advanced. They all practice at the Museum of Making Music. The beginning band starts with the basics, such as how to open an instrument case so the instrument doesn't fall out. The advanced band performs for groups around town.

Bongard plays with the intermediate and advanced bands. He plays the same saxophone he received from an uncle when he was 10 years old and it gleams.

Bongard described it with pride: "This is an E flat alto saxophone, made by the Buescher Company and it was really made very well. I treasure it because it’s been with me virtually all of my life. It's something that I enjoy everyday and the both of us, we get along."

Hargis says learning to play an instrument requires a willingness to be vulnerable. She says it's impressive to see these men and women muster up the courage to learn after a lifetime of experience. "Some of these people are doctors and lawyers and they’re coming in and they've never read a note of music and they’re learning with everybody else, the plumbers and the truck drivers and me."

Hargis beams when she talks about the men and women she teaches every Wednesday night.

"I want to be them when I grow up. I want to be a person that would want to be in the New Horizons band, because they're so full of life and so still enthusiastic about learning, which I think is just incredible."

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