Saturday morning inside the UTSA arts building, the distinctly tentative sounds of a beginning band can be heard echoing from a first-floor rehearsal room.
The musicians are not UTSA students but military veterans who signed up at no cost through the new UTSA Arts community engagement program for the On-Corps concert band to learn how to play music or relearn an instrument they haven’t touched in years.
Two dozen ensemble members played saxophones, trumpets, trombones, flutes, clarinets, a tuba, electric bass guitar and a practice drum pad, methodically working their way through the first bars of a familiar tune, “Merrily We Roll Along,” as conductor Dean Zarmbinski started and stopped an electric metronome.
Zarmbinski is also a veteran and served as commander of the Air Force Band of the West for 16 years before retiring in 2007. What interested him about directing the On-Corps band was the vision of Roy Ernst, professor emeritus of the Eastman School of Music, who Zarmbinski said wanted to cultivate a beginners band specifically for military veterans, with no prior musical experience required.
Ernst established the New Horizons International Music Association in 1991 to create opportunities for adults to make music. The program has grown to include hundreds of ensembles in locations throughout the United States, and several in Canada, Ireland and Australia.
“My philosophy was that anyone can learn to play music at a level that will bring a sense of accomplishment and the ability to perform in a group,” Ernst said on the New Horizons website.
The On-Corps band is a pilot project with the potential of serving as a template for starting similar bands throughout the U.S., Zarmbinski said.
Celia Smiley was injured while serving in Iraq in 2010, leaving her disabled because of difficulties with her back and arm. During a rehearsal coffee break, she unhooked her saxophone from a neck support brace and corralled her grandson Aiden.
Playing music helps her anxiety, she said. “It helps keep me calm and relaxed … because I do have a lot of health challenges.”
Army veteran Rafael Velez stayed in his chair during the break, working through a few measures that were giving him difficulty. He said he chose to try playing the saxophone because it’s an important instrument in the merengue music of his native Dominican Republic.
“I have a long way to go to sound like my music,” Velez said. “But I’m getting it. Muscle memory, that’s the main thing.”
He learned of the ensemble through his wife, Grace Bermudez Velez, an Army veteran who works at the Veterans Administration hospital helping veterans rejoin their communities.
“I got him into this because he actually had a traumatic head injury in Iraq,” which resulted in seizures and a mini-stroke, Bermudez said.
“I think this is going to help him a lot,” she said. She also joined the ensemble, mostly to make sure he keeps at it, she said. Bermudez played piano in third grade, so she knows how to read music, but hadn’t touched an instrument since. She chose the clarinet to have something to share with her clarinetist grandson and goddaughters.
Of her husband, Bermudez said, “He’s better than me about practicing every day. He’s an overachiever.”
Just the beginning
The principle of New Horizons’ beginner bands is to create an atmosphere “completely supportive and free of competition and intimidation,” according to Ernst. Yet in order to play music, beginners must learn how to distinguish a quarter note from a half note, stay in rhythm with their counterparts, understand sharps and flats, and even learn when to take a quick breath to continue the melody.
Zarmbinski patiently led each section through its parts for “Jingle Bells,” running between tapping out the rhythm for the electric bass player and blowing through his trumpet as an example for everyone to follow.
Army veteran Victor Garcia used to work at the Pentagon, in command of commissaries for all military services. Now he holds the lone tuba of the On-Corps ensemble, struggling to understand how to make it work.
“I’m frustrated,” he admitted, “but I’m learning.”
Smiley joked that as a beginner, she’s not looking to become a superstar. Mostly she misses marching alongside military bands and appreciates the opportunity to participate.
With the ensemble focused only on learning a few Christmas songs in time for a holiday concert for friends and family, Zarmbinski said marching in parades might be a ways off but could figure in the long-term picture if the program expands.
“Dr. Ernst said a couple of weeks ago that he would love to see, eventually, a veteran’s adult marching band in the Rose Parade or the Presidential Inaugural Parade or something like that. That would be really cool,” Zarmbinski said. “That’s a long-term thing, but as big as we can make it grow, let’s do it.”
For the moment, Zarmbinski is focused on teaching the veterans to be patient with themselves.
“You can’t expect perfection quickly,” he said. “In the long run, if they stick with it, they’ll improve and get better. Just being able to overcome what’s a challenge for them, it may help them to overcome other challenges they might have.”
After rehearsal, Bermudez helped Velez pack up his saxophone to get ready for the drive home.
“Just doing this together is really fun. Because this is the first time we’ve ever done anything together like this,” she said, smiling.