Golden years, rusty horns, silver sounds

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Golden years, rusty horns, silver sounds

Being in a band means being part of a proud and distinguished heritage. Whether one is a member of a classical orchestra, a nightclub band or a military band, the glory lasts a lifetime.
Or so say the members of the Songpa Silver Orchestra, whose average age is 75. The twelve musicians, all of whom take exceptional pride in their calling, are former members of broadcasting corporations’ orchestras, hotel club bands and even a U.S. military band. Once a band member, always a band member, they say.
“The tenure of artists is forever,” says Eom Nam-ik, 75, the orchestra’s leader.
Really? Elderly folk who have retired from the profession, playing in a local district-office-affiliated band, are considered artists? You bet. “Most of the members of our band are from the music profession,” Mr. Eom says. “You definitely need to have some experience in a band to be in our club. We are professionals, you know.”
In the basement of the Songpa district office, almost all the band members have gathered for the regular practice session. Before starting practice, they recline in the room next door, drinking coffee and chatting about tomorrow’s performance at Jamsil Stadium.
Tomorrow they play for the Seoul City Badminton Tournament. “Even the Seoul Metropolitan Government asks us to perform at city functions. That’s how well-known we are,” says Mr. Eom.
They play folk songs, oldies and the latest pop songs, but most of their repertoire consists of light music and marches that are often used in concerts and ceremonies. As they take their seats in the practice room, the members, all of whom are men, begin tuning their instruments, blowing into them. “It’s becoming rather exhausting now,” says Jo Byeong-sun, 72, the first-chair alto saxophonist.
On close inspection, the band’s instruments seem extremely worn out. Trombones, trumpets and saxophones by Yamaha, King and other brands, their handles and mouthpieces appear to be rusty. But according to the band, they produce good sound.
“The rustiness is actually the beauty of the instrument,” Mr. Eom says.

They sit in three rows, holding their instruments and discussing the nuances of the scores. They decide to start with the marches. Mr. Eom uses a pen to conduct; then, when his part comes in, he picks up his trombone and plays. As the music blasts from trumpets, drums, guitar and saxophones, some move their feet to the beat.
The music is resounding and full of vitality, which is remarkable considering that most of these gentlemen are well past retirement age. But then, there’s no such thing as retirement for artists.
The youngest member, Yun Yeong-duk, 64, is not the only one who plays with energy and zest. Belying their years, the members of the Silver Orchestra produce music that is booming and electrifying. The next song they practice is the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Putting on grave faces, they display confidence in the music and in their abilities. Flipping through the tattered score, Mr. Eom says, “Hey, the drum needs to be louder. Can’t hear ya.”
After practicing a contemporary song, they perform a 19th-century American folk song, “When You and I Were Young, Maggie.” Jo In-sang, 73, puts his finger on the mouthpiece of his trombone to steady the instrument. His face balloons and shrinks constantly, but he shows no weariness or difficulty.
The band decides to play a couple of songs just for fun. They pick “Kkungttari Shabara” by the dance group Clon, playing it with rapturous and upbeat sounds. After about half an hour of practice, they take a break in the adjoining room.
Mr. Yun, the youngest member, practices a bit more before joining the crew. “I retired about nine years ago, but a year later, I got a call from my former colleagues in the MBC orchestra to be part of this band. It’s wonderful to continue playing in a band at my age. It sure beats staying at home feeling drowsy,” says Mr. Yun.
A former member of the Republic of Korea Navy Band, Eom Gyu-hong, 76, who plays alto saxophone, gives clarinet lessons to corporate workers who want to learn at the amateur level. “There’s so much joy in being able to continue to work,” Mr. Eom says. “We don’t do it for the money. It’s a self-fulfilling profession.”
Jo Byeong-sun was part of the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill Hotel band and played at nightclubs before his friend Eom Nam-ik recruited him to join the Songpa Silver Orchestra. “Contrary to what young people might think, I don’t find it physically exhausting,” Mr. Jo says. “In fact, it’s a healthy lifestyle for me to have some kind of work.”
The Songpa Silver Orchestra was inaugurated in 1994. During its nine-year span, one member has died; a few had to be replaced for personal reasons. Performing 10 times a month on average, they have traveled all over the country, and even to China, to perform at functions ranging from district office events to city festivals.
The orchestra, which practices twice a week, has developed such a reputation that district offices other than Songpa have invited them to perform at their respective neighborhood functions. Although they are paid a meager sum by the district office ― about 300,000 won ($250) per month ― they nonetheless take immense pride in the fact that they are members of the one and only permanent, district-affiliated silver orchestra in Seoul.
“Of course, other silver orchestras exist in Gangnam and Yangcheon, but they are ad hoc. That’s why they envy us,” explains Mr. Eom. “We even do concert tours.” Indeed, the orchestra is proud to be an active part of the Songpa district office.
“The funny thing is, though, among the 12 of us, only one person actually resides in the district,” says Mr. Eom heartily.

by Choi Jie-ho
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