New Mexico Special Orchestra celebrates 25 years of high notes

Mar. 16—ALBUQUERQUE — Roading it out to New Mexico 50 years ago in an effort to escape a likely career as a literature professor with patches on the elbows of his jacket, Gair Linhart knew he wanted to do something special.

He's doing it now as founder of the New Mexico Special Orchestra, an ensemble of developmentally disabled musicians who make beautiful harmony together.

As he prepped for a Friday afternoon rehearsal at the Bilingual Multicultural Services center, he noted the band members are accustomed to having things done for them on a regular basis, "from getting dressed to eating to just about everything."

When they perform for audiences at venues ranging from the state Capitol, the New Mexico State Fair and nursing homes "they are able to do something for others," he said.

"Most go most of their lives without being able to share anything with others," he continued. "But here they share something the world needs: music."

Preparing for its 25th anniversary concert on May 3 in Belen, the orchestra ran through an array of songs ranging from "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" — St. Patrick's Day was fast approaching — to "Moonshadow" to "Bring It On Home To Me" to a number of original compositions by Linhart.

An audience of family members, caregivers, friends and passersby popped by to listen to the show, and Linhart said the musicians see little difference between a rehearsal and a concert.

Linhart's corny jokes — "The wind was so strong it blew my dog away. You know what I said? Dog-gone!" — seemed to amuse both the audience and the musicians.

Linhart, who has worked as a musician for most of his life, founded the orchestra in 1999 after working for a time at the now-gone Los Lunas Hospital and Training School, where he encountered people with disabilities.

Linhart, who developed a penchant for playing the guitar and harmonica after fooling around with the trombone as a youth, "figured some of them could play music." So he started the orchestra.

Landing on the idea of using same-tuned instruments in the key of C — open tuning, he calls it — he realized it would allow everyone in the band to strum and bow and "blend in" regardless of their initial ability.

As a result, "we can blend together and make mellifluous music and not have it be a tremendous racket," he said.

Add some tambourines, maracas, a xylophone and a gifted singer named Kevin Lord, who is blind and autistic, and voila! — there's something very harmonious about the orchestra.

Linhart had always wanted to make music, ranging back from his days wishing he could blow the trumpet as a Boy Scout — "I didn't have the lip," he said.

He played in all sorts of bands in all sorts of places but found himself in need of a job in the late 1980s in New Mexico. A friend who worked at the Los Lunas school hired him as an aide.

Looking back at that segue from musician to hospital staffer to leader of the Special Orchestra, he said with a smile best described as dumbfounded, "All because I needed a job."

The orchestra is now his life's work. It provides a vehicle for people who may not be able to express themselves freely because of their developmental disabilities, some of the parents and guardians of the musicians said in interviews.

Watching her 32-year-old son, Woody Lowe, play with a ukulele in the rehearsal, Aleta McCoy said the orchestra is the perfect outlet for someone who has been "performing and singing since he was 3 or 4 years old."

In the five years or so he has been in the orchestra, she has watched as Lowe and other members come in, choose an instrument they want to play, take their seats and await Linhart's signal to start.

Linhart, she said, often lets each member pick a song they want to play. There may be some debate and a vote about it among the members — that happened several times during Friday's rehearsal — but ultimately everyone goes along with whatever song gets chosen in the end.

"The relationships they have with each other are genuine," McCoy said. "They love each other."

Noting some of the musicians have sensory difficulties that prevent them from processing information, she said playing music together "gives them a break" and allows them to respond to the music and convey its feeling and rhythm to one another and the audience.

Rick Madden, a retired doctor and the father of 44-year-old Jennifer Madden, who plays and dances within the orchestra, said she was born nine weeks early and suffered brain damage that left her with cerebral palsy.

She looks forward to playing with the orchestra, he said.

"It's a community of fun," he said. "She lights us all up when she lights up."

As her father, he said, the program "brings happiness to me because she's so happy."

Looking back at his career to date, Linhart said he would have never figured he'd become the head of such a program.

After enjoying some green-coated goodies in celebration of St. Patrick's Day with the band members, he said he would not "trade the experience for a million bucks."