Indiana State University Newsroom

New Horizons Band provides music training, friends, health benefits

November 25, 2014

A group of amateur musicians -- with varying to no musical training -- has formed more than just a New Horizons Band at Indiana State University's Community School of the Arts.

"Looking around the room, these are people who started as strangers. Now, they have a whole roomful of friends. That's the cool thing about something like this that you don't find everywhere," said Norm Hanson, director of New Horizons.

Designed for adults, ages 25 years and up, the New Horizons Band is for people with little or no musical background who want to learn to read music, play an instrument and join others who are taking the same steps.

Patricia Bitts, 76, played the clarinet from third grade through marching band at Hymera High School.

"It was a big band, and we did dance steps -- that was when they first came out," Bitts said. "We had a real good teacher, graduated from IU School of Music. And she had us doing dance steps while we were playing, and we went everywhere. We even got invited to the Rose Bowl, but our principal wouldn't let us go. But we were good."

Like many young women, she gave up her love for playing after getting married and having a family.

"We had season tickets to the symphony, and my kids, we gave them all piano lessons. I had a son that was first chair violin at North High School, and he was really good," Bitts said. "My daughter played flute, and my son - my youngest son - played the baritone. We always had music in our life. But I just didn't know how you could -- as an adult -- could get into a band, I just ... didn't see anywhere or any way to do it."

That is until she read a newspaper article about the New Horizons Band being formed locally. Now, for Bitts, it's like riding a bike.

"It's always a thrill to me," said Bitts, a business administration graduate of Indiana State. "When I practice at home, I can hardly put it down. I play for like an hour and a half at a time, till my lip hurts so much that I can't keep playing. I don't know why I let it go for so long."

Her husband, Robert Johnson, had never played an instrument before joining New Horizons. He grew up in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, and as a grade-schooler, rode the school bus home and couldn't participate in extra-curricular activities, she said.

"When I first started, I wasn't sure I could get a sound out of the thing that sounded like any kind of musical sound," Johnson, 78, said. "It was pretty hard. I'm finally getting some sounds that sound like music. I'm happy. I'm progressing, I'm improving."

Bitts says Johnson, who spent his career working as a chemist, practices even more than she does at home. They're so dedicated to the band that while they're gone this winter, they've found a New Horizons group to join.

"We're going to Mesa, Ariz., so I got online and I found a New Horizons band out there," Bitts said. "I've written to ask if we can join that band while we're gone, so we can keep up with it."

While New Horizons band members may have limited experience playing an instrument, Hanson brings with him nearly 30 years as a high school band director. He also leads the jazz ensemble and string orchestra at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and plays in the Terre Haute Symphony and bands around the area.

"Really, music is all I've ever been good at -- besides throwing runners out at second base, but clearly I'm not playing in the major leagues," Hanson said. "My dad was a college music professor and professional musician up around Chicago and the Muncie area. It's been a part of my life since forever."

Talking to him is a little like listening to a jazz jam session -- verbal one-liners resemble a series of improvised musical chords and meters. The upbeat tempo makes the practice sessions enjoyable.

"Norm is fun. He makes it fun and they praise you -- they don't complain if you do it wrong or something. So it's a positive thing," Johnson said.

In addition to new friends and new (or renewed) hobbies, New Horizons offers health benefits. Band members are taught to breathe intentionally and from the diaphragm.

"You lose lung capacity as you get older. I think it's more a matter of learning to control the breathing than ... about increasing lung capacity," said Johnson.

Research has shown playing music is the brain's equivalent to a full-body workout and that the brain improves structurally through the rigors of musical training -- no matter your age.

"When you're doing something like this, it's the ultimate in multi-tasking," Hanson said. "You gotta keep your place, you gotta remember what button to push, you remember to breathe so you can play. The person next to you is playing something different, so you gotta play your part while he's playing his and not get distracted by that and keep your spot in the music, watching the director, all that."

Johnson admits joining New Horizons was intimidating. "My kids are really good, and you know, I didn't want to sound like a total fool or something," he said.

But Johnson and Bitts aren't afraid to learn new things. At the age of 60, they started taking ballroom dance lessons. It's where they met as widowers, and now it's how they pass the cold-weather months together.

"Every winter, we go to Texas or Arizona to dance," he said. "So we've done something new before. You don't want to do the same thing all your life, you know? You want to do something different."

The New Horizons Band is hosting an information day 6 p.m. Dec. 15. The regularly scheduled New Horizons class will be open for observation, and Hanson will be available to answer questions. The event is free, and refreshments will be served.

For more information, call the CSA office at 812-237-2528. Please RSVP if you plan on attending the information day.


Photos: -- New Horizons Band members practice at Indiana State University's Community School of the Arts. -- Patricia Bitts plays the clarinet during New Horizons band practice at Indiana State University's Community School of the Arts. -- Robert Johnson plays the trombone in New Horizons band practice at Indiana State University's Community School of the Arts. -- Norm Hanson leads practice for the New Horizons Band at Indiana State University's Community School of the Arts. -- Patricia Bitts tightens the reed on her clarinet during New Horizons band practice at Indiana State University's Community School of the Arts.

Contact: Petra Nyendick, director of the Community School of the Arts, Indiana State University, 812-841-2884 or

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or