By From TownOnline.com/Billerica Minuteman
By Cheryl Lecesse / Staff Writer
George Simolaris loves to toot his own horn. In fact, you can hear him almost all over town.
Simolaris, 44, has been playing the trumpet for more than two decades, everywhere from the Town Common to local nursing homes, barber shops to insurance agencies, and gas stations to Lowell Spinners games.
But for the last three and a half years, the Andover Road resident and self-employed painter has also played with the University of Massachusetts at Lowell concert band.
In addition to painting, Simolaris has been attending classes at the university two days a week, working to earn his history degree to become a teacher. As a student, he is eligible to join to concert band.
Simolaris started playing the trumpet when he was 22, after quitting smoking. A friend had an old cornet, a brass instrument slightly smaller than a trumpet, that he gave to him after learning of his interest.
From that point on, Simolaris taught himself how to play. He first began practicing outside his Pond Street home, playing in the back yard as his dog howled.
By taping music onto his dashboard, he learned the basics of reading music and playing while driving from job to job. Over the next 18 years, he worked on his ability every chance he got, even playing for detail officers and sanitary workers. He purchased multiple trumpets, keeping a couple in his van. During elections, he would play a song for politicians holding signs on the Town Common as he waited for the light on Boston Road to turn green.
"I always find an audience," he said, adding that he has brought his trumpet as far as the Dominican Republic, where his wife's family is, and Florida.
"Usually, you find musicians that way," he said.
He would go to a local nursing home every Christmas Eve to play carols, toting first his younger sister and now his two children, 13-year-old Alexander and 12-year-old Athena. Both, coincidentally, play the piano.
Regardless of how much he played, however, he never truly performed with a band.
Until three and a half years ago.
Simolaris had an associate's degree from Middlesex Community College, but he wanted to continue his education and become a teacher. After a few words of encouragement - and a little prodding - from his aunt, he decided to enroll at UMass-Lowell. He thought he was signing up for night classes, but realized later, after a conversation with his adviser, that he was attending day school. Since then, Simolaris has organized his work schedule and his class schedule, allowing him to attend school Tuesdays and Thursdays.
At the same time, he found out about the university's concert band, which also met on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The ensemble, open by audition only, was holding auditions the next week. Simolaris had to play two classical pieces for the director, Dan Lutz.
"The guy knew that I was rough," he said of Lutz. "But he knew I was a hard worker."
Although Simolaris auditioned without much experience with the structure of music, he said Lutz saw his potential and gave him a spot in the band.
"He gave me a break," he said.
Simolaris has great respect for Lutz, adding that the director has also written music for the Billerica Memorial High School Band.
"He's a genius," he said.
Most of the 75-person band was made up of music majors - musicians Simolaris refers to as "the cream of the crop in their respective high school bands," who are both talented and passionate.
"I am the older guy in the band," he said. "But music crosses lines."
For seven semesters, Simolaris has auditioned for and earned a spot in the band.
"I worked my tail off," he said. "I pinch myself that I'm actually there."
when he sat with the group for the first time, he had no idea what multi-measure rests were. He said he kept asking the others around him what each musical symbol, like a rest, meant. His experiences, both as a self-taught musician and now with his structured background, has taught him not only about music but also about his own abilities.
"I learned that I could actually persevere through it," he said of his hard work as he learned in the band. "I didn't think I would ever be able to play these intricate passages."
On a more profound level, his involvement in the group has also taught him similarities between life and music.
"Once you make a mistake, it's gone," Simolaris said. "That's how life is."