It's first period at Roosevelt Middle School in Eugene, Ore., and time to strike up the band. As the musicians—57 sixth-through eighth-graders—file into the auditorium for their daily practice, one of them, French-horn player John Suta, moves a little more slowly. He is, after all, a senior—as in senior citizen.

Suta, 77, has been practicing and performing with the youngsters for three years. A classical music lover, he's fulfilling his lifelong ambition of learning to play the horn. Plus, he says, there's a side benefit: Being with the band means "I don't have to act grown-up."

A retired construction worker, the twice-divorced Suta found his French horn in a thrift store in 1996. He couldn't afford the $85 price tag, so the clerk let him have it for $10 less. "She saw that I needed that horn," he says. The next step was to find a music teacher. A friend recommended Rick Wolfgang, then band director at Roosevelt, and Wolfgang, to Suta's delight, offered him a seat with the band.

"I walked into band room the first time he was here," says Nathan Forster, 13. "I thought, 'What's that old guy doing?' But Mr. Wolfgang said he was just trying to learn, so we all accepted it. He just became part of our band."

Suta has made excellent progress. "He's gone from having a hard time finding the notes to being able to play some real melodies," says Ellen Campbell, director of the Emerald Horn Club at the University of Oregon, where Suta also plays. In addition, he has made a lot of young friends—a whole band of them, in fact. One night last year he tripped and crushed his beloved French horn. He showed up for practice anyway. Not knowing how he was going to pay for repairs, he dropped the horn off at a music store. When he returned the next day, it had been fixed. "The kids chipped in and paid for it," says Suta. "They're beautiful."