Nora D Randall is no stranger to the stage. She was co-artistic director of the theatre company Random Acts Productions through the late 1980s and ’90s, writing and performing plays and fringe acts all over Canada and the US.
But until last year the 66-year-old hadn’t played an instrument since high school, making her upcoming performance in the Rainbow Concert Band’s holiday show all the more remarkable.
Randall’s partner and Random Acts’ co-director, Jackie Crossland, was diagnosed with cancer in April 2012 and died less than two months later. After suddenly losing her partner of 24 years, Randall tried to pick up the pieces but found it exceedingly difficult.
“It was like a bomb went off in my life,” she says. “I just watched TV. I was just stunned. I didn’t really know how to go on, and I didn’t really want to go on. But I didn’t want to not go on. I was just kind of stuck.”
That was when her friend Sherry McCarnan decided to throw out a lifeline. McCarnan plays the French horn in Vancouver’s Rainbow Band, and she knew that Randall had played the trumpet in high school. So she left a trumpet on her grieving friend’s porch with a note saying she’d pick her up for practice.
Randall was unsure at first, but soon she was hooked.
“I didn’t play a note the whole first time; I just sat there with a trumpet in my lap,” she says. “I went home and I practised, and I was terrible. But the thing is, from the very first moment, the band was very kind. Nobody said anything bad to me; nobody offered me tons of advice or said don’t play. If I asked a question they would answer it, and everyone just thought that I would get it.”
And she did.
She started taking trumpet lessons, then joined a choir. Then a music teacher from the Vancouver School Board said he would give jazz lessons to anyone at any level, so she started doing that, too.
Randall says the music gave her a way to reconnect with others and helped her find a way to move on and start again.
“The whole music thing has been surprising to me; it just happened. You wander around in the dark trying to find your way, and then you find this weird little door to go through.
“Joining a band is a way of moving through the grief, and my life, and not leaving Jackie, because we really loved music. So it’s kind of like finding my way but with a group of kind people.”
It’s a common refrain among the Rainbow Band members. They say Vancouver’s gay concert band is more than a place to play music; it’s an important connection to others in the LGBT community, especially from different demographics and age groups.
“Just being a gay man and being able to hang out with other gay people is always great for me,” says 34-year-old saxophonist Michael Frolick. “Having an eclectic group of people like this, and somebody like Nora who hasn’t played her trumpet in 50 years — I think it brings an element of interest to my life, being able to play with people who otherwise wouldn’t be brought together.”
People like 86-year-old drummer Cornelius Popescu, who has been with the band for 14 years, and Ken Ariga, the seasoned trombone player who arrived from Japan just four months ago.
They’ve all been integral to Randall’s journey.
“When you’re in a group, and you all hit a note that vibrates together, it’s an amazing feeling. It’s healing on a level that’s really profound,” she says. “Really, they’ve been very important to me.”