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Seniors find meaning in music

The Beginning Swing Band
Kyle Norris
Michigan Radio
The Beginning Swing Band


In the basement of a church in Grand Rapids, there's a rehearsal for the Beginners Swing Band.

Most of the musicians here are in their sixties and seventies.

There are four saxophonists, two trumpeters, a trombonist, a baritone player, a pianist and a guy on drums, and a lot of them are brand spanking new, to their instruments.

Pat Conlon plays the big baritone sax in the group. He played clarinet growing up. Then stopped for 25 years, and got back into music when he retired ten years ago. Conlon says playing music with people is a blast and he could use some fun.

Right now, Conlon has some money problems on his hands:

"Well I'm like most folks, I got great big hits in my IRA accounts pushing us up against the wall, we're very unhappy campers financially now, but this is away from all that."

Nancy Summers-Meeusen directs the West Michigan New Horizons Music Ensembles and the swing band is a part of that group. New Horizons is an international organization where seniors learn to play instruments together and there are ten chapters in Michigan:

"So many of us took a hit in the stock market but what are you going to do? Are you going to sit there and covet your little piece of the pie or are you going to make yourself happy?"
Summers Meeusen

says she has seen people gravitate to music despite some tough situations. In the past, they've had musicians in their group who were homeless, yet managed to pick up an instrument on the cheap, and pay membership fees not with money, but by doing office work for the group.

Music certainly makes Eilene Riggs happy. She lives in a log cabin in Saline and plays trombone. In the summer, she practices on her front porch. She played trombone for a short time in high school and loved it, but didn't play after that.

Still, music captured her heart from afar:

"Oh when I'd see a band I'd say we've got to stop and listen to this band. If there was a parade I had to be there to listen to it. Because that was just the drum beat made my heart race. I just loved the music, I'd hear the trombones and think Oh boy I want to do that again I want to do that so bad."

Riggs bought a trombone at a garage sale and began playing with a New Horizons band in Saline.

Music has helped Riggs offset recent losses in her life. Her husband lost his job and she had to quit work in order to help care for her grandchildren. So her family has made some big life changes including cutting back on travel.

But Riggs says music can take her places:

"Some of the music, for instance some of the marches, we did one march that was a Mexican march, and I traveled to Mexico once and it made me feel like I was in Mexico again."

Music also literally takes her places. Riggs went to band camp for adults last year, at Interlochen near Traverse City. She says the experience was magical. She says it was the high point of her life.

Kyle Norris is from Michigan and spent ten years as a host and reporter with Michigan Radio, the state’s largest NPR-affiliate. He lives in Seattle and works as a substitute host and producer at KNKX.