Golden oldies: playing music to stay young at heart

Blow the Dust Orchestra hitting the right notes for Bealtaine Festival for Older People


We are listening to a group of older musicians rehearsing in a large, brightly lit room at the back of the National Concert Hall. It’s days before the Blow the Dust orchestra will perform in front of hundreds of people at the NCH as part of the Bealtaine Festival for Older People.

The project started seven years ago as a once-off initiative to encourage older people to play instruments they had abandoned years earlier. The musicians who got involved had such fun that they weren’t prepared to abandon their instruments again and many others have joined them since.

When we catch up with them, they are practicing Johann Strauss’s Thunder and Lightning (or Unter Donner und Blitz to be precise). The traditional orchestral players in strings, woodwind, brass and percussion are joined by a banjo player, a mandolin player and even an accordion player. And conductor Joe Csibi has fluidly adapted the music to suit the varying levels of skills and competence of the 73 performers.

“It’s a great project because it gets people to come out to play their instruments who haven’t played in decades. The rehearsals give them a regime to practice to. We zone in on the hard bits and then put the whole jigsaw back together again,” says Csibi. Watching the performers follow his instructions with an informal, jovial manner is a joy in itself.

Dennis O’Callaghan (90) from Goatstown, Dublin is one of the oldest members of the orchestra. A former senior civil servant in the Department of Agriculture, he has been playing the violin with the orchestra since it started. He also plays traditional music with Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann a few nights a week. “My wife died eight years ago and I’ve taken it on intensely since then. I might have a 90-year-old body but I’ve a significantly younger brain. Learning new pieces of music keeps my brain active. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be moping around at home and that would slow me down,” he says.

Frank Loughran (72), from Ashbourne, Co Meath, took up the trumpet again after 40 years. In an incredible twist of fate, he bought back the trumpet he had sold in 1966 at a secondhand auction. He’s been in the orchestra since it started in 2009. “I’ve met a whole new group of people. I’d forgotten the technical stuff but I got back into reading music again and I play a lot for my own enjoyment at home.”

Nigel Flegg, head of education, community and outreach at the NCH, oversees the Blow The Dust orchestra. “There is a tendency for active musical engagement to drop off over the years. Choirs are easy to find if you want to take up singing again, but if you are, say, an amateur viola player, it is difficult to find opportunities to perform,” he says.

Rehearsing and performing in the orchestra provides both a musical and social outlet. The NCH provides the group with rehearsal space, a conductor and musician tutors. The participants come from as far away as Sligo and Mayo to join these day-long rehearsals and pay €80 a year.

Mary Haren (68) travels from Cavan for rehearsals. “I used to play in secondary school and didn’t play for years. Then, in the late ’90s I got very sick and decided if I got over my illness, I’d love to be in an orchestra again. So, when I got better I went to lessons and now I’m here. It’s absolutely fantastic.”

While recovering from a stroke four years ago, Jimmy Kinahan (69) took up the violin for the first time. “Joanne Crooks who runs the St Agnes School Orchestra in Crumlin handed me a viola and I’ve learned to read music. I now play in the St Agnes School Parent Orchestra and I joined this group last September,” explains Kinahan.

Some participants share their rediscovered love of music with family members. Dominic Nolan (72) played in the St Agnes Boys Band as a teenager and had ambitions to become a professional trumpet player which were never realised. So, when he took up the trumpet again, one of his grandsons, Nathan McDonnell, took a shine to his instrument too. “He picked it up and he could blow it. So, I taught him up to Grade 3. Then I got him professional lessons and he’s now in the National Youth Orchestra and I’m learning from him now.”

Nolan says that he’s very aware of the importance of keeping his mind active. “The difficulty when you retire is that you don’t have the same opportunities to focus. My grandfather and my mother went senile so I want to be responsible for myself. Playing music also has a soothing effect on the whole body.”

Eileen Cullen (83) is a retired Loreto sister who lives in Rathfarnham. “It was very much a case of ‘blow the dust off my violin’ when I came here. It was a small group at the start and it has grown and grown. I’ve made good friends. There’s a great sense of humour and we get wonderful tuition,” she says.

Seamus Stephenson (80) is a retired linotype operator with The Irish Times. “I started the piano accordion when I was 10 and played with an accordion band until I was 19 when I discovered girls and rock’n’roll,” he says with a grin. Once retired, he took up playing again and joined this group. “It has given me a great sense of confidence and it’s great for your mental health.”

Some participants have even gone on to form new ensembles from the Blow the Dust orchestra. Clarinet player Aidan McDaid, who also plays in the Newpark Senior Orchestra in Blackrock, Co Dublin, was one of the original musicians to reply to the advertisement in The Irish Times seeking members seven years ago.

“It was supposed to be a once-off concert but we said it couldn’t die and decided to meet in a local school,” says McDaid.

“Then Joe Csibi came back to us that said the project has been extended and here we are still.”

Instrumental health:

Benefits of playing music

The health benefits of playing a musical instrument are significant, especially for older adults, say psychiatrist Philip Dodd, a member of the World Doctors Orchestra. “It’s about the social connectedness that music creates. There is also a sense of having a common goal and the positive feedback from performance. Unlike some physical activities where a decline in ability is accentuated with age, playing music – and playing classical music in particular – has positive associations with age.” Studies have shown that playing a musical instrument changes the brain chemistry, creating a greater sense of wellbeing. Clara Daly Donnellan, a trombone player in the RDS Rising Stars concert tomorrow, says music is “a release for the soul and an outlet for the heart”.

The Blow the Dust orchestra concert takes place in the National Concert Hall on Tuesday, May 10th at 1.30pm. Special guests include the NCH’s Sing Out! community choir. Tickets €8 01-4170000

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