SUN CITY, Ariz. — It's just a few days before the holiday concert, and conductor George Zoske can barely make out the chimes, hears too much trumpet and has to repeatedly remind his musicians that "A Festive Christmas" should sound like a choral group singing, not like marchers marching.
"That would be so much better if it were all together, wouldn't it?" Zoske pleads with about 100 players in the Sun City Concert Band.
It's not quite a major metropolitan symphony. But when the band members, dressed in formal attire, raised their instruments for several concerts this month, the volunteer ushers had to turn people away. They could only accommodate 1,200 people in the Sundial Auditorium.
The musical effort does more than entertain retirees. It may help them live longer. It certainly helps them live better.
"This keeps us all alive," said Gordon Gaskell, an 80-year-old baritone saxophonist in the Concert Band. "We're all young here."
Medical research backs him up.
"I don't think there are any scientific studies that show it extends life," said Dr. Walter Nieri, a geriatrician who is director of the Banner Sun Health Research Institute's Center for Healthy Aging. "But it does extend the quality of life."
While working with dementia and hospice patients, Nieri uses music to soothe anxiety, to encourage the physical activity of singing and dancing and to improve self-esteem. He has found that music does all three extremely well.
"Music is an alternative to medicine," he said.
For Dan Johns, 82, playing the trumpet seems to be saving his life in a literal sense. In May, Johns' doctors sent him home to hospice care, telling him he didn't have long to live before heart disease and emphysema would take their toll.
But Johns has been playing the trumpet since the mid-1940s, when Europe was just recovering from the ravages of World War II and Americans were still mourning Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
He hated to miss school then because he would miss two music classes, he said.
Johns found himself facing the same situation this spring. He has missed a few rehearsals, but otherwise is usually in his seat and using what little lung power he has left to make music with his trumpet.
"Thanks to venues like the Concert Band, I'm getting the exercise I need to play," Johns said. "It gives me a nice musical and social outing each day. It gives me a goal."
Not all the musicians have spent their lives playing. Many, like Richard Humphries, an 82-year-old saxophonist, came back to music after leaving it behind in high school.
Humphries worked as an engineer until he retired 15 years ago and decided to study music at Purdue University. Looking around for a retirement community, the musical opportunities in the Sun City area drew him in.
The music also lured in conductor Zoske and his wife, who moved to Sun City from Wisconsin in 1997.
A high-school music teacher in Madison, Zoske also played trombone with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He joined several West Valley groups and began conducting the 32-year-old Concert Band in 2004. He also directs the Sun City Chamber Orchestra.
Because it is a volunteer group and the Recreation Centers of Sun City turns no one away, there are no auditions for the Concert Band. Potential players sit in on some rehearsals, and those who don't have enough competency usually opt out. Although the proficiency varies, somehow it all comes together in time for performances, Zoske said.
"We don't pretend to be a professional group, but I think both of our groups are doing very well, and I'm very proud of what they are doing," he said. "Judging from the audience response, we must be successful."
Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com