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Niles Area Community Orchestra offers free music for community, place for musicians to jam

If not for the Niles Area Community Orchestra, Larry Lee’s cello might be locked inside a case gathering dust in the back of a closet.

Instead, on an average Sunday as the music swells from a basement practice room in New Apostolic Church, Lee, 82, is poised at his cello, alongside more than 30 other musicians from the community orchestra. For many musicians, like Lee, the band has provided a chance to reconnect with a passion for music and bring life to instruments that otherwise would be dormant blocks of wood and brass.

“This gives me a place to play,” Lee said.

The orchestra performs several free concerts a year for the Michiana community – the most popular being their Christmas concert at the Niles District Library that draws more than 200 people to the show. While concerts are free, those who come to listen are asked to bring food to donate to the Niles Salvation Army.

The orchestra performs songs across a variety of genres from the classical Christmastime melodies to Broadway and pop numbers.

At the head of the musical organization is Valerie Rumpf, of Granger, a longtime music lover, conductor of the group and Niles business owner. At each practice, Rumpf can be found guiding musicians through each note.

For Rumpf, music has long provided harmony in her life and she wanted to give that gift to others, too. Rumpf is one of the founding members of the orchestra, which got its start when congregants from New Apostolic Church gathered to play music. She credits her husband David, who also plays in the orchestra, for coming up with the idea to invite people from across the Michiana community to get involved.

“We wanted to keep it growing,” Rumpf said. “It was really neat because it was something people wanted to be able to do. It’s been a joy.”

Musicians who take part in the orchestra also get to give back to the community on two levels: by providing free concerts and collecting food donations for a local pantry.

“It’s a win, win for everybody,” Rumpf said. “We are helping people in need and we offer enjoyment and music to others. Our following has grown so much.”

The orchestra sees a range of musicians of all ages and skill levels. The youngest musician is a 13-year-old who plays chimes. While a few other orchestras exist in the Michiana area, some require the musicians to try out. Without the Niles Area Community Orchestra, Rumpf said some might not have a place to play.

“I think that if we did not have this going that not as many of them would be playing right now,” Rumpf said. “[For] a lot of them the last time they played [an instrument] was in school. When they heard about it, they wanted to get back into playing. Some learned how to play so they could be in the group.”

Lee is one example of someone who revived their musical talents to take part in the orchestra. While Lee played the piano as a child, he said he found his real passion for playing music later in life.

“When I was in school there was orchestra and band, but I did not have enough sense to join either one of them,” Lee said.

Lee discovered it is never too late to find the joy that comes with picking up an instrument. He was 55 when he first began taking cello lessons, after his father, Hugh, found the second-hand instrument in a thrift store for less than $5. He started taking music lessons with musician Carol Bullock from the South Bend Symphony Orchestra.

Lee has been part of the Niles Area Community Orchestra for many years and said the primary thing he gets out of the experience is lots of enjoyment.

“It’s fun to be together with other players,” Lee said. “We enjoy each other and visit.”

For Rumpf, however, music has long been part of her life. Her father was a musician, playing trumpet for the Navy’s Honor Band. Rumpf first started performing music on the piano when she was 8 years old. She earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in music from the Indiana University of South Bend.

When Rumpf started a family of her own, each of her five children learned to play an instrument. The family also formed their band and frequently jammed together.

“They do music. Their children are doing music. It is kind of a family thing,” Rumpf said.

Rumpf’s children also play in the Niles Area Community Orchestra.

Rita Schenk, Rumpf’s daughter, plays violin and viola in the orchestra and her son, Richard Rumpf, plays the cello. The family said music has helped to shape their lives.

“This is a dimension to life you can’t replace with anything else,” David said. “The musical experience is a totally different experience. A lot of people think, ‘I just don’t have any music in me,’ but that’s not true. There are few people that with guidance and training can’t do it.”

The orchestra is always seeking new members to be part of their organization. Those interested are invited to try out or merely attend a concert and listen to the Niles Area Community Orchestra play.


Photography by Kelsey Hammon

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