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Karen Telleen-Lawton: It’s Never Too Late to Join the Band

I didn’t know what I was missing until I attended a symphony at the newly opened Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2004.

In the magnificent Frank Gehry-designed building, I sat in an unreserved seat directly behind the orchestra. I almost could have touched the timpani.

Surrounded by the tones and vibrations, I was inside the music.

The idea of playing a band instrument began then, but it remained background music for the next decade.

There were accent marks: a group of friends vowed to form a little music group “when we retire,” then my husband and I chose the jazz series at Arts & Lectures, which clinched the saxophone as my chosen instrument.

Then a client, Jeff Peterson, told me about Prime Time Band, exclusively for musicians age 50 and over.

“I wish I could to do that,” I lamented, “but I don’t play a band instrument.”

Karen takes a break from practicing the saxophone to snap a pic. She recently joined the ranks of the Prime Time Band, which welcomes musicians old and new over the age of 50. Click to view larger
Karen takes a break from practicing the saxophone to snap a pic. She recently joined the ranks of the Prime Time Band, which welcomes musicians old and new over the age of 50. (Karen Telleen-Lawton photo)

I still remember in Junior High when the teacher announced band tryouts. I assumed (wrongly) that you needed to know how to play before you could join the band.

By then I’d already taken five or years years of piano lessons; perhaps I figured that bridge had been crossed.

“That’s fine, we want you!” Peterson, the band’s conductor said, stressing the group’s inclusiveness. “Band members are so supportive of each other. We always have new friendships — and occasionally new relationships.”

Prime Time is a charter band of the New Horizons International Music Association, an organization providing entry points for music-making adults that began in 1991.

Santa Barbara’s first Prime Time Band — organized by George Pendergast, Van and Lorraine Vander Ark and Nick Rail — began in 1995 with 30 participants, half of whom had never before played an instrument. Many are still in the band over 20 years later.

I was approaching a decade birthday and had been trying out new things all year. I agreed to take a few months of lessons and then contact Peterson.

A few days after my first lesson my husband and I had dinner with musically-inclined friends. When one discovered my new talent, he insisted on a jam session.

I knew three notes by then and played only fortissimo. He tapped out a rhythm for me to repeat and then improvised above it, dancing up and down the piano keyboard in a way I have never been able to accomplish.

The magic of that session helped me race through the next two practice sessions.

When I could manage all but the highest and lowest notes (which I still have trouble with), I emailed Peterson, who encouraged me to come sit in.

I told my husband I was ready to go listen to a practice, and he informed me “sit in” means “play.”

That set me back a couple weeks, but I attended my first practice in late March. They were ready with a chair and music stand in the saxophone section, between the flutes and the French horns.

During scale warm-up I could only just get the first note or two by the time they’d rolled to the top of the octave, but I played!

I watched the sheet music over my neighbor’s shoulder as they practiced for the summer concert. I felt thrilled in the surround-sound.

I’ve gradually worked up to playing parts of each piece and always come home humming through sore lips.

If you want to hear the most gorgeous sounds played by nearly a hundred old dogs with a dozen new tricks, attend the free Prime Time summer concert at San Marcos High School at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 5.

Then come join the band!

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor ( and a freelance writer ( Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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