The Happiest Band in Hawai’i

The Small World Harmonica Band up to 40 members from just a handful a few years ago offers seniors a creative outlet and healthful benefits, while making audiences smile. It’s 8:15 on a Tuesday morning in Moanalua and practice doesn’t begin for another 45 minutes, but many members of the Small World Harmonica Band are already getting their instruments out of their cases and starting to play.

Christina O'Connor
Wednesday - July 13, 2011
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Evelyn Findlay and Toshiko Yogi (front row) and other members of the band at practice. Nathalie Walker photos .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

It’s 8:15 on a Tuesday morning in Moanalua and practice doesn’t begin for another 45 minutes, but many members of the Small World Harmonica Band are already getting their instruments out of their cases and starting to play.

The group one of two in the Hawaii Harmonica Society meets every Tuesday morning. Most of the members range in age between 60 and 80, and all but one are retired. The band has been around since 2000; some members have been there since the beginning, while others are new this year. When the band started, there were about five or six people. Now, there are nearly 40 members.

By 9 a.m., all the members have taken their seats. Band director Robert Omura walks to the front of the room and lifts his hands, preparing to conduct.

“Ready?” he asks the band. Most of them already have their instruments poised in front of their mouths. They’re ready. Omura waves his hands, and the group starts playing Western Melody, filling the room with the melodic twang of the harmonica.

Today, there’s a lot to practice for. They had a July 4 performance at Palolo Chinese Home, and on July 23, the band will take the stage at the Mission Memorial Auditorium for the Hawaii Harmonica Society’s 14th Annual Recital and Concert. The Reed 21 Harmonica Band will also be playing.

Omura says the primary purpose of the group is recreational it provides the band members with camaraderie and a fun way to fill their newly found free time. And the band reaches out to other seniors, too. The group has one or two gigs each week at various nursing homes and senior centers across the island.

“We play music according to their age group interests,” Omura explains. “So most of the music we play is old-time music.”

Omura also likes to find a variety of songs from around the world, which is how the band got its name.

“We have got probably a collection of about 600 or 700 songs, including American, European, Latin and Asian songs,” he says. “We play a number of Hawaiian songs as well.”

As the band starts up, they play along in sync hitting even the highest notes all together. It’s hard to believe that many of the band members have no previous experience with the harmonica, and many of them had no prior music experience at all before they joined the band. It was that lack of prior experience, in fact, that inspired many of them to join.

“After I retired, I just wanted to do something to be more productive,” says Dr. Keumsoon Hong, who has been with the band since 2008. “I had never played harmonica in my life, so it was a good chance to learn something new.”

Stan Fujii is focused

Mary Webster, who has been a part of Small World for more than a decade, also wanted to learn a new skill after she retired. She tried a variety of activities including line dancing and ukulele before finding Small World and when she finally did, she knew that was the one activity she was going to stick with.

Today, Webster and her harmonica are inseparable.

“Whenever I go to the Mainland, I stick it in my pocket and play,” she says. “I took a train from Florida to California once, and I was sitting there playing quietly, and people would come up and ask me to play more.”

Webster is preparing to play her first solo Nada sou sou at the recital.

Omura says that the harmonica band is an ideal activity for retired seniors. Not only does it give retirees an enjoyable activity to participate in, but playing the harmonica is associated with a number of health benefits, including improving lung functions.

“When playing, you have to control your breathing,” explains Dr. Hong. “and so it improves respiratory functions. Sometimes you have to hold your breath long to make certain notes and certain sounds.”

Omura, who is asthmatic, adds that it helps his lungs get stronger.

It also improves memory and brain function by keeping the mind active.

“In order to read the music ... you must be focused,” says band member Stanley Fujii, who has been with Small World for several years. Keeping the mind active as you age is associated with reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

And playing the harmonica certainly keeps the mind active. Fujii explains that playing the harmonica is a constant learning experience. There are always new songs, new styles and new techniques to practice. When Fujii started playing at age 74, he thought he was too old to learn something new.

“But it’s a very simple thing to learn, as long as you apply yourself,” says Fujii, who used to practice two or three hours each night when he was first learning.

But while the instrument involves a constantly evolv-

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