Older hands learning new musical tricks

Senior orchestras are springing up around the country, with plenty of healthy benefits


In the recent film Quartet , a group of retired opera singers and musicians come together for a final performance to save their retirement home from closure. The film was a fiction inspired by the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, founded by opera composer Verdi in 1896, to house musicians and singers after their retirement, but it also reflected a groundswell of interest in music among senior audiences.

Indeed, in Ireland there are dozens of senior orchestras in existence across the country, including a newly established ensemble that rehearses at Newpark Music Centre in Dublin and already has a membership of 30. One member comes from Co Mayo twice a week for rehearsals.

Teenagers are still loitering outside on a sunny Tuesday evening as the members tune up their instruments, ready for the evening’s rehearsals. A pair of saxophonists are moistening their reeds, a trio of clarinets are bleating, and the six violinists sit in two groups slowly bowing their violins’ strings. Two women are seated at the piano, sharing the keys.

Niall O’Brien, the orchestra leader, calls them to attention like a group of school children. They have been working on a lively tango called El Tordo (The Thrush ) by David E Stone. O’Brien has arranged the music for the eclectic group, which includes a harp, an accordion, and guitars, as well as a full range of classical orchestral standards.

The only requirement for members is that they bring their own instruments – and several rent theirs – so there is a wide range of experience among the players, from those who have only been playing for six months to those who have played their whole lives.

“You would be unlikely to get music to suit all the instruments and abilities we have here,” says O’Brien, as he describes his adaptations to the score, but when the group finishes the fast-paced piece for a third time, you would not know that a saxophone had no original place in the Latin number.

Vivienne Reid and Aidan McDaid, two of the group’s five flautists, are members of not just one but two senior orchestras. Reid, who used to work as a health-care professional, started playing the flute for the first time when she retired.

She played organ and piano at secondary school but had not been involved with music since, despite owning a flute for 25 years. The flute was attractive, she says, because it was portable and because she always loved James Galway. Retirement finally gave her the impetus to take some lessons, but she soon sought out a group setting where she could share her passion.

“It is boring playing on your own,” she says. “And it improves your playing. When you rehearse alone, you are used to hearing yourself, but with an orchestra you have to listen differently. It is demanding and relaxing at the same time, and you learn a lot from other players.”

McDaid, a former civil servant, had no experience with music until his late-50s, when his daughter started studying the flute. “She was my inspiration,” he says, “and it is a wonderful outlet, particularly when you are coming towards retirement. When you discover something late in life it’s quite dramatic. It’s like someone giving up smoking: you become enthusiastic, evangelical, trying to convert everyone you meet.”

Why the arts are good for you
The orchestra is part of an initiative funded by the Arts and Health Partnership, which promotes access to and participation in the arts as a fundamental part of emotional and physical wellbeing for older people.

Music, in particular, has been proven to have a positive effect on mental and physical health. Research conducted as part of the prolific music strand at Waterford Healing Arts Trust has shown that access to and participation in music events reduces anxiety and stress for patients, visitors, and staff, and helps to forge closer relationships between hospital professionals, and between the hospital and the wider community. In a group context like an orchestra, music has been found to reduce loneliness and depression.

International studies have also found that music provides strong associations with and memories of a person’s life. As a result, music has become important in holistic aspects of treatment for patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Projects such as Health and Harmony, an outreach project facilitated by musicians from the National Concert Hall, are capitalising on these connections.

Health and Harmony is being run at four day-care centres around the country for sufferers of dementia. Mary Bardin, manager of the Alzheimer Society’s Fáilte Day Care Centre in Clonsilla, says: “The music sessions have promoted new ways to bring about communication between clients and staff. [The clients’] interest and response has encouraged staff to keep stimulating participants with discussions about their favourite songs and memories.”

In the month-long Bealtaine Festival (see panel), a celebration of arts for older audiences, there are several musical events that tap into this effect, including the Complaints Choir, which has given senior singers the opportunity to express negative emotions through uplifting song, and the Dawn Chorus, an annual event that encourages the public to greet a new day with their voices.

The Newpark Senior Orchestra will hold its first public performance in All Saints’ Church, Blackrock, Co Dublin at 6pm on May 28th . The Bealtaine Festival continues until the end of May

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