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Music group for adult beginners doubles as research lab and teaching tool

Founded by a McGill PhD candidate, New Horizons Montréal proves it’s never too late to benefit from music lessons.


For the past few winter terms, a band of older adults have been guinea pigs in Lisa Lorenzino’s final-year music curriculum and instruction course. As part of the undergraduate class at McGill University, students create an arrangement or composition and teach it to the music education program’s Lab Band, a group typically made up of experienced students. Thanks to the New Horizons Montréal ensemble, it’s now an intergenerational experiment in how to teach true beginners.

NH Montréal is a bilingual wind and percussion band for adults with little to no background in music. The 50-member group is made up mostly of people between 50 and 60 years old, but is open to anyone who wants to learn. “At one point we even had a 17-year-old girl playing and someone who was 74,” said Audrey-Kristel Barbeau, the band’s general director. Ms. Barbeau, a PhD candidate at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, founded the group in 2014 as part of her research into the health effects of musical instruction on seniors.

Participants in the New Horizons ensemble. Photo courtesy of New Horizons Montréal.
Participants in the New Horizons ensemble. Photo courtesy of New Horizons Montréal.

From January to June that year, Ms. Barbeau followed the progress of eight band members as she led the first NH Montréal cohort through its paces, starting with how to open a case and assemble an instrument and finishing with a public concert. All the while, Ms. Barbeau collected data through interviews, questionnaires, blood pressure measurements and respiratory tests. She’ll submit her dissertation this fall and so far she’s found that the program had positive impacts on participants’ biological, psychological and social health.

That’s certainly true for Joan Barrett. She joined NH Montréal shortly after retiring. “I can almost feel my brain working sometimes and that’s a quality of life thing,” she said in an interview with McGill staff. “To have that sense of accomplishment and learning something totally new and different has been really great, really fun.”

Ms. Barbeau heard much of the same in the feedback she collected; band members had a good time but didn’t find the work easy. “It’s hard to accept being a beginner at this stage of life,” Ms. Barbeau said. When rehearsals get tough, she repeats the band’s motto: “Your best is good enough.”

It’s a slogan she picked up from the New Horizons International Music Association, an umbrella organization supporting more than 200 New Horizons chapters in the U.S. and Canada (including one at Western University). Ms. Barbeau’s group is the first chapter in Quebec but will soon be joined by a bilingual band in West Island Montreal.

“On the English side, we have all of Canada and the United States. We’ve done exchanges with the New Horizons groups in Ottawa and in Potsdam in New York. [It] would be really nice to do exchanges in Quebec as well.”

Two years ago, NH Montréal moved its home base from McGill to the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal at Université de Montréal. Still, Dr. Lorenzino says the Schulich School will always open its doors to the group. “We love these guys, it’s as simple as that. They’re reinvigorating us and reminding us that what we’re doing is important.”

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  1. Eli / August 10, 2016 at 14:41

    I am an old beginner on piano. Started when I was 54. Do not know anything about music. It is extremly difficult and very interesting!

  2. Barry Blackhurst / August 11, 2016 at 13:43

    As Founder of the West Island New Horizons Band I draw my inspiration from Audry. She is an unbelievable motivator, communicator and of course teacher.
    Barry Blackhurst