Members of the New Horizons Band are promised three things: you learn a new instrument or reacquaint yourself with an old one, you have fun and you gain a whole new family.
And judging from the camaraderie of its members who hail from all over the area, every single promise is kept - and then some.
Band membership is open to interested musicians who are 50 years old or older. The oldest member is in her late 80s and a World War II veteran, and learned to play a trumpet with the group when it first began 12 years ago. But don't let an older age bracket fool you. Energy and enthusiasm best describe the atmosphere of the Robert M. Sides Music Center practice room every Tuesday and Thursday morning where rehearsals are held for seniors eager to learn.
The band is made up of brass, percussion and woodwind instruments, and boasts three experienced directors, Al Nacinovich, Lucy Henry and Judy Shellenberger - all retired public school music teachers.
The first New Horizons Band was started by professor Roy Ernst in 1991 as a research project at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., to determine if older adults could successfully learn instruments.
"They took the idea all across the country like Johnny Appleseed," Nacinovich said.
There are more than 30 New Horizons Bands in the United States, with the Williamsport group becoming the 13th in 1997 and starting with 12 members. About 25 members play with the band this year - and a few commute from as far away as Laporte, Lock Haven and Troy.
Annabelle Rogers drives 40 miles from Laporte and has played with the band for 11 years.
Rogers started with the band by pure chance. She brought her clarinet to Robert M. Sides with the intention of getting it refurbished for one of her grandchildren. After playing a scale, she was quickly recruited into New Horizons.
"I hadn't played my instrument for 50 years, and it took me three or four months to get back in the swing of it," she said.
Members are expected to provide their own instruments, but they can use the Robert M. Sides rental program.
"Members basically make up three groups," Nacinovich said. "People who had played an instrument, people who played piano or sang in choir but never played this instrument before, and those who started completely from scratch."
The group performs in December and May and plays standard band music - show tunes, marches and swing music - usually at the middle-school level of difficulty.
"We play at nursing homes, for church groups, community centers or children's groups," Henry said. "We don't charge. Anybody who has room for us, we don't turn them down."
They would like to start a separate beginner band, as it normally takes about a year for beginners to prepare for a performance. As former school teachers, the three directors have experience to teach novices and incorporate similar teaching techniques.
"My elementary students were eager to learn, and these seniors are the same way," said Shellenberger, who is in her fourth year co-directing the band. "They're excited and very helpful."
Besides age, Henry pointed out some marked differences.
"You don't have to put the hammer down as hard," she said. "Kids are like sponges, they absorb it without realizing it. These people want all the information they can get to help them. It's just a different thought process."
Not to mention it's easier to explain how to interpret swing music to players who lived through the era, Nacinovich said.
Health issues like eye surgery, arthritis or shingles have forced some members to change instruments, but the band is always accommodating when setbacks occur.
"We adjust and they adjust," Henry said.
Sonja Hughes has played with New Horizons for eight years. During that time she suffered a stroke and couldn't hold a clarinet since her hand was numb. She now plays a bass clarinet since it's easier to handle with the bottom of the instrument sitting on the floor.
Hughes is an avid supporter of the band and encouraged anyone who loves music to participate.
"Anyone 55 and over should come join us," Hughes said. "You can meet new friends. And you can help people by making music."
New Horizons Band charges a small tuition for 15 weeks of instruction. The band is looking for new members, especially saxophone and trumpet players.
For more information, contact Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org.