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Orchestra makes magic moments

Posted: May 10, 2009 9:46 p.m.
Updated: May 11, 2009 4:55 a.m.

The bandleader of The Senior Moments Orchestra helps members play some notes during band practice at the SCV Senior Center on Thursday afternoon.

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Over a half-century ago, Millie Ballace worked at MGM and 20th Century Fox as a backup musician in the orchestra. She hadn't touched her violin much since that time, until picking it up at the Cowboy Festival a few years ago.

"It was hard for me at first, playing along with others," Ballace said. "But then I started practicing every day. I thought it would be great to start an orchestra again."

She approached the Santa Clarita Senior Center about the idea and the Senior Moments Orchestra was born. After advertising the orchestra in the center's "Mighty Oak" newsletter, Ballace is now one of a half-dozen seniors rediscovering their passion for playing music.

"I love my violin, Ballace said. "It relaxes me. When I play, I become a different person, a much happier person."

That's not surprising, according to Chip Johnson, Senior Moments conductor and piano player.

"Playing music gives you a sense of accomplishment," he said. "It's a good outlet for people, especially seniors, to stay sharp and happy."

Science bears him out. A study in the February 2005 issue of the international research journal "Medical Science Monitor" showed for the first time that playing a musical instrument can reverse multiple components of the human stress response on the genomic level.

Joan Chenoweth of Valencia played fiddle at square dances as a child and continued with her musical education through the years, most recently taking lessons on guitar. She also practices by ear, playing along to CDs of her favorite classic artists in the mornings and evenings.

"It's a soul thing for me," she said.

Though she was concerned about keeping up with the other Senior Moments musicians, Chenoweth described their practice sessions as a thrill.

"When you get to be my age, you don't care if you make an idiot of yourself or what other people think," Chenoweth said. "I hope I can play along, but it's just such a thrill to play. I just think it's great what we're doing here."

The orchestra focuses mostly on standards and pop tunes, including "Somewhere My Love," "Heart of My Heart," and "Easter Parade," and rehearses in the Senior Center's lunchroom.

Currently, there are an abundance of violinists - four out of the six band members - along with Johnson's piano and Terry Montross' viola. The orchestra is actively looking for horns, clarinet, bassoon, oboe, cello, and a big bass to round things out.

"We're hoping it'll pick up," Ballace said.

Players don't have to be former professionals, either. Accomplished amateurs are welcome.

"We really want to develop and extend the potential of people with talent and help them get better," Johnson said. "We can carry them from point A to as far as they want to go."

According to Johnson, once their lineup is intact, the Senior Moments Orchestra will play at senior centers across the Santa Clarita and San Fernando Valleys. He's played for thousands of elderly guests as program director of various orchestras in the past and said they're always an appreciative audience.

"Music brings joy to the heart when it hears a familiar tune," Johnson said.

For more information on the Senior Moments Orchestra, call the Santa Clarita Senior Center at (661) 259-9444.


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