In 1977 Lonnie began the development of The Studio Orchestra and Dimensions in Sound, which were his passions until the day he died. The following is an excerpt from an April 2002 article in The Capital Times about Lonnie.
Just before the conductor’s downbeat, the ice machine starts grinding, an intro to “Summer Samba” that maestro Lonnie Nofzinger didn’t count on. But at venues like Oregon Manor, ice happens.
In about 25 years of bringing his two groups to mainly nursing homes and assisted living facilities, Nofzinger has had other offbeat experiences. He’s been hit by wheelchairs. At Waunakee Manor, a woman in the front row shouted, “It’s too loud!” He’s sweated plenty about musicians not showing up or being unprepared, a reaction aided by how high the thermostat is set in these places.
The instrumentation and number of volunteer musicians varies from year to year. The Studio Orchestra now has about 30 members, and Dimensions in Sound, which plays big band tunes, has 20. From September to May the orchestra performs or rehearses on Wednesday nights and the band on Tuesdays. Practice space is rented at Bishop O’Connor Pastoral Center. Due to health problems, Nofzinger gave up the Dimensions in Sound baton in 2002.
A native of Shipshewana, Ind., he played trumpet in high school and switched to French horn at Indiana University after serving in the Air Force in 1952-56. He recalls his first teaching contract in Danville, Ill., in 1960 was for $4,500.
The groups grew out of a marching band formed in the Hill Farms neighborhood for a Fourth of July parade. How did Nofzinger get roped into the director’s job? “Like the kid who owns the catcher’s mitt gets to be catcher — I had the equipment.” A very minimal music library has grown to about 400 compositions.
Trumpet (and later trombone) player Art Mayland was instrumental in the early band and brought other family members along, Nofzinger says.
“Lonnie has had musicians from all levels of talent over the years, from those just really getting to know their instruments to those who’ve played professionally,” says Ann Weber, a sax player who joined the orchestra in its first year, 1977. A marketing department administrator at TDS Telecom, she plays in both groups and chairs a joint board of directors.
The sound of music enriches listeners and performers, says Weber. “I have gained so much from these 25 years with Dimensions and the orchestra. I’ve become a much better musician and a much better person through the years. I’ve been able to bring good music and good feelings to so many who can’t seek that out for themselves any longer. It’s been a true blessing.”
Jim DeKock had never played a horn when he decided at a “Jack Benny-ish 39” to take up tenor sax. Now he’s in both groups, along with his wife, Lee, on alto. Every year DeKock, who works in the UW-Madison engineering physics department, sees “dramatic examples” of how audiences are energized by the music. He likes the relaxed atmosphere. “Lonnie shares laughter easily. He has extraordinary patience.”
Nofzinger admits that virtue is tested at times. At a recent practice, he halts “Witchcraft” for its lack of magic. “Out of all those tempos, let’s pick one.” A little later he says a passage “almost brought tears to my eyes,” not meaning tears of joy.
It can be a challenge getting people to put aside their daily cares and focus on the music, he adds. “The first couple of rehearsals I went home asking myself why I did this.” If a person has music skills, it’s a shame to stop playing, Nofzinger says. “My philosophy has always been it’s a good source of recreation.”
“In some respects, adults pull the same tricks as kids. They just are more sophisticated. And I’ve found out I can’t con the adults as much,” he says with a smile.
He has two children: Meg, a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital, and Michael, an Appleton police detective.
So many stories and people and songs build up over the years. “Mary the bari” conned her way into the band without a lick of experience on the baritone sax and then drove back and forth from Chicago for a season.
“She had to drop out because she got so many tickets, she lost her license,” Nofzinger says.