By K.D. Norris
John Weitzel, who lived in Kentwood for almost 30 years, has been a musician for the majority of his 92 years — as a musical student, teacher and high school band leader. And he has no intention of stopping.
So, with is baritone horn in hand, John has spent the last two years as part of St. Cecilia Music Center’s Grand Band, one of a series of community youth and adult music programs offered by the center.
“I was one of those people who started playing early in my life, I was eight years old when I first started playing the trumpet, became a member of the high school band a little early and had quite an experience there. Then I went to college and played trumpet there,” John said in a recent interview during a break in rehearsal with the band.
He has a masters degree in music from Columbia University in New York, still majoring in trumpet. Then became a high school band director in Alliance, Ohio, and was there for 35 years, as director of the band and supervisor of music. “After I retired from that, my wife and I moved to Grand Rapids and I joined up with several bands and have been in the (St. Cecilia) Grand Band for a couple years. It has been a great experience.”
His life has been full of great musical experiences, however. One of his fondest is his relationship with world-famous composer, conductor and arranger Henry Mancini.
Friends in music, life
“We met when we were in junior high school in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. We were both 12 years old. We hit it off right away because we were both only children,” John said. “He had quite a personality, even at that age, and I was attracted to him. We had quite an experience together, in high school, through our music. He was a life-long friend.”
Even when Mancini was at the top of his fame, and John a high school band director, they shared musical moments.
“He played a concert at Blossom Hills, Ohio, with the Cleveland Orchestra, and he was kind enough to introduce me during that concert,” John said. “Then we met after, in the Green Room, and we were able to renew our friendship at that point. … unfortunately, he passed away at just 70 years old. I was always curious about the music he might have written had he been allowed to live a little longer.”
And speaking of long life, John credits his continuing love of music as one reason for his longevity.
“I just feel that physically, and mentally, it is a great outlet,” he said. “I have been extremely happy, in my old age, playing in three different bands and I feel that the Grand Band is my favorite. … (it was) attractive to me for a lot of reasons: the atmosphere, the fact that we play on the same stage where world-class musicians perform, great directors. It is a fund band, and I have met a lot of friends.”
Weitzel’s attraction to the band is shared by other members, as is the feeling that it helps senior players keep or renew their musical skills.
Many members, many musical stories
Tom Ennis, a 70-year-old trumpet player, also started playing when he was eight and played through high school. But then life got in the way.
“I joined the Army. Went over to Vietnam, and then got stationed in California and raised my family there. I kind of fell out of it,” Tom said. “When I retired from work, out in California, I wanted to play my horn again, but they don’t have community bands out there. When we moved back to Michigan, I found out about the Grand Band.
“For myself, I think you can continue to improve and improve, as you get older and older, you don’t have to just stagnate. … but, like anything, it is very hard if you just do it by yourself. You can’t play a trumpet by yourself and enjoy it a whole lot. The enjoyment comes with playing with a full band.”
Weitzel’s and Ennis’ stories are just two of the many stories of the St. Cecilia music programs, according to Grand Band director Paul Keen.
“There is a wide variety of musical talents in this band,” Keen said. “It is not exclusively an elder band, we invite musicians of all ages. In fact, the young person … (in the band) is home schooled. He is the son of one of our percussionists, and we welcome him.”
But Keen, 70, sees special benefit to older musicians.
“It is an opportunity to continue to socialize with people with similar interests. There is also a benefit in terms of cognitive functioning,” her said. “If people, as they get older, stimulate their brains, whether it is through board games, through art, music, other intellectual pursuits, it really does help our frame of mind, our physical and mental wellbeing. I know from my own personal situation, all the aches and pains I feel, I never seem to feel them when I am playing an instrument or standing up here (leading the band).”
The St. Cecilia Music Center’s Grand Band rehearses Monday mornings and performed in concert in December. The Grand String Orchestra, conducted by Cyndi Betts, rehearses on Wednesday evenings. No auditions are needed for either group. For more information about joining one of the adult ensembles visit SCMC-online.org or call the education director at 616-459-2224.