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Getting the band back together, for the golden years

A 4-year-old girl twirled and jumped in what is normally a parking lot to the music of Monko, telling her mother it was her favorite band.

Monko, named after its singer-songwriter-guitarist Kevin Monko, was playing under an awning at the east end of the weekend Collingswood Farmers Market, hard by the elevated tracks of the commuter train from the New Jersey town of Collingswood to Philadelphia, about 6 miles away.

Monko, 58, is a commercial photographer who just happens to love putting bands together. This one has a bass player, a mandolin man, a drummer and himself.

“When I am playing music, I can’t get much happier,” Monko said. “All of the people who play with me are better than me. I am lucky enough to get people to play with me in a variety of bands and we go play in different places, make a little money, and just have a lot of fun.”

Monko is just one of many baby boomers who, near or at retirement age, are trying to recapture their musical youth; if not exactly expecting Taylor Swiftian riches, they are at least hoping for modest remuneration and a place in the lights.

“Boomers have been imagining life stages since they were born,” said Emilio Pardo, president of an AARP division called Life Reimagined. “They always want to embrace what they feel is their calling. It is no surprise that as they have gotten older, they have reached out to their musical pasts.”

There was a time, in his 20s, when Monko worked a variable schedule in restaurants, when he thought he might be lucky enough to not just make a little side cash, as he does now, but maybe make a real living playing music. Then life, as it so often does, intruded, and he started on a different career path, got married, had a couple of children and moved to the suburbs and away from the music scene.

It did not quite gnaw at him, but the thought of playing remained with him. Little by little, mandolin players and trombonists came into his life again, if more in his spare time than before. Since then, he has released a CD of his quirky semi-rock music, and he plays at farmers markets and coffeehouses and the occasional party.

Paul Stiegler, 63, was an enthusiastic member of a campus a cappella group at Carleton College in Minnesota in the early 1970s, and he once even competed in a hollering contest in the Great Smoky Mountains. He never really thought of basing a career on his vocal prowess, though, and became an emergency-room doctor and medical clinic owner.

He took some vocal lessons in the 1990s and played parts in community musical theater, but in 2007, Craig Kaemmer, an old friend from Carleton, sent him a CD he had made.

“I talked to him on the phone for two hours and got hooked,” said Stiegler, who then took time off work to go to Nashville to take songwriting classes.

By 2013, he had a CD of his own, a cross between country and soft rock. He performs when he can, mostly around Madison, Wis., where he now lives, and gets support from a songwriting association he found online and from a Nashville-based mentor.

“That is another difference between the generation before and now, in regards to music or anything like that,” said Pardo of AARP. “You can go online and find someone who has done it, or is trying to do it. There is a support in social media, at the least, and you can connect with others in a way your parents couldn’t.”

Sometimes the return to music later in life is fortuitous.

Soon after Roberta Foster, 60, of Whippany, N.J., retired from teaching four years ago, her husband, Allen, also 60, bought her a ukulele for Valentine’s Day.

“I said, ‘Where is my jewelry? Where is my chocolate?’ ” Foster said.

Her husband was a good amateur guitarist and he thought a ukulele, which is a little smaller and easier to pluck, would be a good starter instrument for her retirement.

Foster gave it a try and ended up loving it. She found there was a ukulele jam in nearby Morristown the first Wednesday of every month. Now she and her husband play as a ukulele-guitar duo at nearby clubs, nursing homes and parties as the Long and Short of It, because he is 6-foot-4 and she is 5-foot-4. She has also done some recording.

“One day I was an elementary schoolteacher and now I am a professional musician,” she said. “All because my husband was smart enough to give me this crazy ukulele.”

Pardo of AARP said that because music gives joy – even when it is not the Beatles or Beyoncé – it is a perfect baby boomer later-in-life vocation.

“It is wonderful to embrace your calling,” he said. “Boomers are ripe for this and it’s just a case of being unafraid to give it a shot.”