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Benefield: Bandleader keeps the music going with a little help from his friends

Sid Gordon of Rohnert Park celebrated his 95th birthday Tuesday just as he wished - standing at the conductor’s podium leading a band of merry music makers in song.|

The conductor makes his way to the podium. He is wearing black shoes, black dress pants and a black button-down collared shirt. His black tie is dotted with white musical notes.

There is some adjustment as he gets a little help moving from his walker, up one step to the podium where he takes a seat on a tall chair in front of a stand. On the stand are sheets of music.

When the conductor, Sid Gordon, raises his hands and then drops them, the band begins to play.

Suddenly filled with the sound of about 60 musicians, senior citizens all, the room is transformed. So, too, is Gordon.

“When I get up there I’m a different person,” he said. “I limp around and I can’t stand up straight, but when I get up on the podium, I’m a young person again."

Gordon, a part-time conductor with the New Horizons Band of Sonoma County, celebrated his 95th birthday Tuesday morning doing what he loves — leading this band of merry music makers in song.

“At my age, there are not too many things I can do,” he said.

But trust me when I say: He can do this.

He’s not a figurehead up at the podium. He’s a teacher.

As he leads his charges, who are all masked up and instruments covered, through a symphonic rendition of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” he pushes the musicians not to go too early on the climax of the song.

Speaking into the microphone that hangs around his neck, he says, “Soft. Soft. Softly.”

“We were already so loud, we couldn’t hear the crescendo,” he said.

He has the players run through that section again.

‘He’s a teacher’

Gordon has been playing and directing music for almost his whole life.

He taught at Healdsburg High back when the campus was located where the junior high is today. He taught at Redwood High School in Larkspur for years. He has taught at the junior college level.

When he and his wife, Betty, moved north from Marin County he played with the Santa Rosa Symphony .

About two decades ago, he signed on with the New Horizons group. And with him brought a caliber of musicianship that raised the level of those around him, said longtime New Horizons bandleader Lew Sbrana of Healdsburg.

“One year I played the French horn. One year I played the sax. One year the clarinet, anywhere we needed it,” Gordon said.

But he loves to lead. And he pushes the musicians, who range from novice to professional, to try more difficult pieces.

“I think he really enjoys the challenge. If we have played anything tough in the band, it’s because of Sid,” Sbrana said.

But don’t read that as Gordon being a hard-driving task master, he added.

“He’s a teacher. He has a heart. He will work with people,” Sbrana said, noting that instructions are regularly sprinkled with “please” and “thank you.”

On Tuesday, after the band made its way through a rousing rendition of the holiday tune “Carol of the Bells,” they moved to a string of Beatles songs. When they moved into “Michelle,” they hit a snag. Gordon wasn’t happy with a particular transition.

He halted the group.

“I can’t let you get away with that. You didn’t hold it long enough,” he said.

They played it again.

But Gordon is certainly not all business. Perhaps gleaned from years working with high school students, he knows how to crack wise.

When soloist Sharon Griffith, who helped get Gordon settled at the podium, got him water midway through his first set, he said into the microphone, “She does everything but drink it for me.”

Then he took a swig.

“You think it’s water,” he said.

Gordon is spry and witty, but he is serious when he says how much this band and these people mean to him.

“These are just wonderful people,” he said.

The feeling is mutual.

Earlier Tuesday, as Gordon pushed his walker into the main auditorium right on time, his band mates feted their longtime leader with a rousing trumpet fanfare that bled into a full band rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

It was meant to be triumphant, but forgive a guest for getting a little misty-eyed. It was incredibly moving.

‘It’s quite an honor’

Music and this group have gotten Gordon through a lot.

The Gordons’ home near Coffey Park in Santa Rosa burned to the ground in the Tubbs fire in 2017.

Gordon tells me more than once the only thing he escaped with that night were the clothes he was wearing and his medications. The pants have since worn out, but he still wears the belt.

He speaks of the generosity of the community, musicians and others, in helping he and his wife, Betty, get back on their feet.

After the fire, the couple moved to an apartment in Rohnert Park. They have since gotten rid of their cars. One of their four daughters drives them regularly, and she makes sure to get Sid to New Horizons practice.

When the pandemic hit and the New Horizons Band shut down for more than a year, Gordon was largely housebound.

The prospect of returning to the podium fortified him.

“It’s a wonderful thing, for a guy my age. I didn’t expect to be lasting this long,” he said.

“For me personally, it’s kept me alive and happy and going and doing things. When you don’t have anything do, there is no reason to hang around.”

On Tuesday, Gordon was in his element. The band had taken a break and he was seated next to Betty, and their daughter, Gail. A piece of chocolate birthday cake was perched somewhat precariously on his lap, but Gordon barely had a chance to take a bite.

A long line of musicians came to greet their leader, to wish him happy birthday and thank him for the music.

“It’s quite an honor to be at this age and still be able to stand up in front of a band,” he said.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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