J. Bernard Vander Ark ’55 loved teaching instrumental music at La Colina Junior High School in Santa Barbara, Calif. For 35 years he conducted the orchestra and bands, utterly unaware that it was perfect preparation for teaching and conducting another group of musical beginners.
Vander Ark was two years into retirement when he saw a short video about the New Horizons Band in Rochester, N.Y. His reaction: “When do we start?”
So began the Prime Time Band. It’s now one of 170 chartered New Horizons Bands in three countries. Being at least 50 years old is the only requirement for joining.
Of the 33 who showed up for the first rehearsal of the Prime Time Band, Vander Ark recalled, “13 had never played their instrument before. Most of the others hadn’t played in 30, 40, even 50 years. We were truly a beginning band—like the seventh-graders I started with every school year. By the end of the night we could play Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
“It was the worst sound in the world,” laughed Lorraine Vaalburg Vander Ark ’56. At age 60, she was playing clarinet for the first time. She also stepped up to be the band’s first manager, doing everything from keeping membership records to making refreshments for concerts.
Four months after the ear-aching rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb, in December 1995, the Prime Time Band was ready to give its first public concert.
“Although the range in ability was—and still is—huge,” said “Van,” as he’s called, “it works because of the band’s unbelievable sense of community. Without being asked, experienced players help the newer ones.”
In 15 years the band and its ensembles have given over 100 free concerts. The city council issued a proclamation naming the Prime Time Band “A Santa Barbara Treasure.”
Concerts are a prime recruitment tool. “People in the audience see how much fun we’re having,” Van said. Like the 87-year-old woman who joined so she could play the bass drum.
“What’s so appealing,” Lorraine explained, “is that we have someplace to go every week, we get to know each other, and we do something together. You don’t just sit and listen. You participate with others in doing something that’s challenging, fun and appreciated. How many places does that happen for seniors?”
“Early on we had one man approach us after a rehearsal,” Van said. “He had recently lost his wife, and before he joined us he was sitting at home doing everything wrong. He said, ‘This band has saved my life.’ We’ve seen that happen over and over.”
In 2005 Van stepped down from the conductor’s podium, and Lorraine from the manager’s position. Both still play in the now 90-member Prime Time Band, and Van conducts its smaller pops band. Last March the Vander Arks helped run a band camp for senior musicians from across the country. It was the Prime Time experience intensified, condensed into a week. Van tells this story:
“A tuba player came from Santa Rosa, really down since the death of his wife. He sat next to a woman tuba player from South Dakota who, two years ago, lost her husband. Both fine players. Pretty soon, we saw them together, arm in arm. Now she’s moved to Santa Rosa so they can be married.
“Lorraine and I feel so blessed that our Lord has chosen us to be part of such a wonderful group.”