WINDSOR, N.S. – Elizabeth Smith is quite surprised to be showered with praise and thanks on her final rehearsal with the Big Valley Swing Orchestra.
Her band mates shower her with flowers, a bottle of wine and a round of applause to thank her for her years of service.
“It’s just been a pleasure,” Smith said, grinning wide.
Smith has been a cornerstone of the band for approximately 15 years, but her connection to music goes back much further.
“I’ve been playing music all my life, I think I started taking lessons from a neighbour across the street for 10 cents a lesson,” she said. “I graduated to a more experienced musician, and those lessons were $1 each, which was quite the expense back then.”
She grew up in Yarmouth, surrounded by a musical family and the church.
“Dad had a beautiful bass voice and our first instrument in the house was an old pump-organ,” she said. “That’s what I learned on, those were my first lessons. I remember feeling so sad when that old organ was replaced by a piano.”
But, she learned to love it.
“Music has always been a big part of our family, I love it,” she said.
Smith started with the Big Valley Swing Orchestra approximately 15 years ago, when she helped out with one rehearsal. After that, the rest was history.
It was totally different music for her, but she learned quickly.
“It’s stretched my ability to play so much,” she said. “I had always played piano, but never anything like this.”
“It’s been a tremendous learning experience,” she said, adding that the club’s director, Brian Johnston, could “get music out of anyone.”
Oct. 21 was her last day with the group.
Following a recent health scare, it seemed like the right time to move on.
She says she’ll continue to play the piano on her own time, especially at her family getaway in Digby County.
“The great thing about music is that age isn’t a barrier,” she said. “My husband played hockey as long as he could, until he was 80, but there comes and end to a sports career.”
“But music, you have it forever.”
Several of her family members are also in the band, including three daughters and two son-in-laws.
Brian ‘B Flat’ Johnston, director of Big Valley Swing Orchestra said Smith will be missed.
“Where are you going to find somebody who can sit down and play a chart without any practice?” Johnston said. “She’s played piano for years and years.”
“I often said that when Elizabeth retires, I’m retiring, but I haven’t reached that point yet,” he added.
Big Valley Swing has been in operation for 21 years, it was formed one year before he retired from teaching music.
“A lot of these students that I had, after they were through school, there’s no place for them to play,” he said. “So we got together at the old band room at the old regional high school, which isn’t there anymore, and I started this. Since that time it has morphed into what you see today.”
The band now rehearses in the music room at King’s-Edgehill School.
At least eight of the members in the group are former students of Johnston’s. One of those former students, Jeff Smith, is now the music director at King’s-Edgehill School and assistant director of the BVSO.
The orchestra has played across the province, including the Halifax Jazz Festival for the past 18 years.
They perform between five and eight times a year.
Members come from all over the Annapolis Valley and the Halifax area to play.
“A lot of these folks play in other bands too, concert orchestras, military bands,” he said. “Even though it’s a dying art, big band music, we have people who are very dedicated to doing this.”