Although they may not have the same stamina or star quality of a young rock band, a local senior’s ensemble is achieving something far more valuable than fame and fortune.
“As we grow older we start thinking, we don’t want to take those risks that are out there, but you know what happens when we start learning something? we’re taking little risks,” said music director with The Harmony Band, Walter Hoogland. “And those little risks empower us.”
The first incarnation of the group formed in the Spring of 2012, when a New Horizons for Seniors Grant (from Human Resources Skills Development Canada) funded the Walk Right In Community Music project.
The idea of the three-phase project led by the Arrowsmith Agricultural Association was to get seniors out of their homes and out playing music together. It started with instruction and workshops in jug band music lead by local musician and teacher Gerry Barnum.
Rick Yates played guitar in his twenties and thirties and then life got in the way, he said. He finally picked up the instrument again about five years ago when he retired. He saw an advertisement in The News for the Walk Right In project in 2012 and decided to join.He is now the band manager.
After three months of instruction, a jug band was formed called the Jugmentals, playing old instruments like whiskey jars, washboards, a washtub bass and others. The group played at care homes, community events and fundraisers.
The project ended in 2013 and that was around the time Hoogland, the youngest member at 62, joined. He said he was recovering from a medical condition when his wife Marilyn Sims, who was instrumental in the music project’s creation, brought home a new sound system for the jug band. And since there was no one to work the system, Hoogland volunteered.
After playing the ‘sound guy’ for a while, Hoogland asked if he could sit in and play some guitar with the group. Hoogland has been singing in bands and choirs all his life, and his strengths lie in the harmonies, he said. The next thing he knew, he was voted in as musical director with the band.
Yates and Hoogland are now the lead vocalists, although everyone in the 14-member group sings. There are four guitarists, five ukulele players, two mandolin players, a bass player, a few people who play percussion instruments and some harmonica players.
“What is really neat is that not only are group members playing their instruments but they have learned to find their own voice, the voice that they had as kids when they were singing in kids choirs and groups,” said Hoogland.
The group changed from playing jug band-style music to folk and soft rock at the end of last year. Along with the change in style came a name change, but it wasn’t easy.
“You get a room full of senior citizens trying to make up their mind…it would drive you nuts!” Hoogland laughed, “Because they’re all set in their ways.”
They came up with 15 names and had a vote, but no agreement was made.
“Finally I said, ‘I give up, leave it until January,'” Yates chuckled.
The Harmony Band was suggested in early February and for once, everyone agreed. And it’s not just band names that the group can bicker about.
Hoogland is musical director so he chooses the majority of the songs.
“Until someone says, ‘Oh god, we’re not doing that song…” Yates added.
Hoogland said sometimes he gets lighthearted comments like, “I’m never going to sing that song again…” but part of his job is to appreciate everyone’s history, musical ability and where they came from.
“Because of our honesty in dealing with life, we are able to say things to each other and know we are not going to walk out because we’re part of something that is pretty special and unique,” he said.
More evidence that the group is more mature than those in a standard rock band is their punctuality. Rehearsals generally start at 3 p.m. but Hoogland likes to have the sound system set up beforehand.
“I try and go in a little early — at 2:30 — they’re all set up and ready to go,” Hoogland laughed. “I’m serious, all of them.”
The band continues to play around the community, including at senior’s homes, and its that population that seems to particularly enjoy the music, Hoogland said. Songs like Auld Lang Syne, Bye Bye Love, Country Roads, Hello Mary Lou and This Land is your Land.
And besides bringing young children to their feet at local community events and lighting up the afternoons of our most mature residents, the band is also doing something for themselves.
“When I leave (a practice) I come home, I see Marilyn and she asks me what today’s practice was like, and I generally say, ‘that was very good, we had a lot of fun,’ and ‘it’s good for us’.”
The Harmony Band is playing at Qualicum Beach Family Day on Sunday, May 25 and June 6 at the Coombs Community Picnic happening at French Creek Community School.