Inside the sanctuary at The Church at College Station in Athens, a semi-circle of chairs and music stands are arranged on the plush carpeted floor, curved toward the front of the room. Personal belongings and open instrument cases are sprawled on the chairs behind. Warm midday light filters in through the windows. It’s a typical Monday, but this is not a typical band rehearsal.
New Horizons Band, comprised of around 30 members, gathers in the sanctuary each week to practice. Primarily targeted at musicians aged 50 years and older, this group accepts all levels of musical experience and encourages beginners to join. New Horizons Band, initiated in Athens in 2010, is part of a larger national organization, New Horizons International Music Association, founded by Dr. Roy Ernst.
Local band members pay tuition to fund the program for now a three-semester-long year, usually $75 per semester, according to Katy Terry, a longtime member and clarinet player.
As is true for the majority of the players, music has been an essential element of their lives since their youth. New Horizons became an outlet for them to learn for the first time or express their musical knowledge and creativity again, rekindling that fire.
“I always thought someday I’d start back up,” says Tom Manley, a tenor saxophonist in the band who has been a member since the beginning. It had been over 40 years since he’d last played the horn. According to Manley, the early days of the band encompassed playing very simple, short songs and focused on staying in tune.
Previously employed as a disc jockey and currently also a member of the Yargo Community Concert Band (YCCB) in Winder with some of his New Horizons band mates, Manley believes that consistency among the age range of the group provides for a more cohesive flow and the ability to relate well to one another. In New Horizons, he is surrounded by people who understand him better and his stage of life, he says.
“It’s fun to play by yourself, but it’s much more fun to play with other people, and so that’s what I enjoy, is playing with other people,” says Manley.
Rose Rendek, a Chicago-native tuba player who started playing piano at age five, seized an opportunity to learn a new instrument through an unconventional yet clever route. She had to drive her kids to elementary school early, where she also taught physical education, and all of her children participated in band. A mother of five kids, each one of them played a different instrument: trumpet, flute, French horn, clarinet, and alto saxophone. With free time on her hands, she decided to ask the band director if she could play too.
“He said, ‘What would you like to play?’ I said, ‘What do you need?’ He says, ‘Well I really need a tuba player because it’s such a big instrument for the little kids.’ And that’s how my tuba career started,” says Rendek.
She ended up playing and performing in concerts with the grade school band for three years. Rendek then marched with the Sicilian Band of Chicago for seven years. Later retiring, she moved to Georgia to be near her grandkids in Atlanta.
New Horizons performs at various locations throughout the Athens area. Some of the members of have different connections at locations where they play. They may have family at the senior centers or be a volunteer at other locations. Many of the group’s performances occur in December, during the holiday season at the Georgia Square Mall, Bear Hollow Zoo, and the State Botanical Garden of Georgia at the University of Georgia.
“Music belongs in the garden,” says Connie Cottingham, the public relations and special events coordinator at the Botanical Garden. Having worked at the Garden for eleven years, she says she enjoys the good acoustics and inviting environment inside the Conservatory, where the band has frequently performed.
“They’re committed to being here,” says Joyce King, the band’s director. King also directs YCCB. As a former middle school and high school music educator, she now prefers working with this older demographic because of the members’ genuine desire to learn and perform.
While King chooses the song selections, she is open to input from the group. A performance last spring at the Athens Community Council on Aging (ACCA) featured highlights from classics such as “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Sound of Music” in addition to songs by the Beatles and even from the popular television series, “Glee.” More recent pieces have included a salute to Dick Clark and songs from “The Music Man.” In the senior citizen homes, King says the music can bring back memories, such as through the patriotic songs if a family member had been in war.
Cheryl Chitwood, a flute player, says that under the direction of King, the band has taken off, accomplished more difficult music, and grown substantially.
“It gives me some purpose, something to do, something just for me,” says Chitwood. The last time she had played in an organized musical group was in high school until she joined New Horizons. Now, she says, it’s an integral part of her life. Though she started on the clarinet, she switched to the flute around her first year in the band. She is a flute player now in three community bands: New Horizons, YCCB and, as of March, The Classic City Band. The passion to play has even transferred over to her three children who all have also played instruments. Chitwood’s almost 15-year-old daughter joined New Horizons some last summer to maintain her musical experience while not in school and serve as a fill-in for the band on the French horn.
When Chitwood was married in April, her fellow band mates were there with instruments ready, by request of Chitwood’s then fiancé. They played “Pachelbel’s Canon” at the beginning of the ceremony and ended with “Highland Cathedral.” This was a first for the band, having never previously performed at a wedding, and the ceremony was held in their comfortable rehearsal home at The Church at College Station.
Christine Wilson plays trombone in the band. She is a retired physical education teacher who taught for 26 years at the middle and high schools in Greene County and is one of the first five founding members of the band, along with Manley and Chitwood. She says she too enjoys that everyone in the band is on the “same wavelength” and acknowledges their growth together.
Percussionist Andrew St. Clair joined the group three years ago. Rendek calls him the “glue” of the band, as he plays the vital role of keeping the beat. He says he has been interested in music his entire life.
Jim Heyl, a euphonium player and one of the band’s oldest members in his mid-80s, recalls his favorite memory as getting to see the band get started. He used to be an associate professor of geography at the University of Georgia, and had previously played on occasion with the Roswell New Horizons Band. Heyl initially tried to help form the band in Athens, but had trouble finding a sponsor. The Hugh Hodgson School of Music was sympathetic but couldn’t contribute, he says. That’s when the UGA Community Music School stepped in.
The Community Music School has existed for a long time and in a variety of forms, says Director Kristin Jutras. In the past, it had been an all-Suzuki-method school taught by professionals and only available for strings. Later, it was briefly run by a student, having lessons for all instruments. The Community Music School now provides lessons to all age groups for practically any instrument in addition to the offering of several types of classes.
“One of the primary goals of the Community Music School is to give the students here at the School of Music an opportunity to learn how to teach or to get that experience. As a musician, we’re all going to rely on teaching as part of our career someday, most likely, so working in the Community Music School is a way for them to get that experience,” says Jutras.
Jutras’ husband, Peter Jutras, a researcher and professor at the Hugh Hodgson School of Music, conducted research in 2008 on New Horizons ensembles nationally and discovered some incredible findings. These included the health, personal, skill, and social/cultural benefits perceived by the members through a questionnaire. A free-response component of the survey allowed respondents to state “the most important benefits to them,” which led to deeper insight with anecdotes and personal reflections. Some of the anecdotal comments astounded Kristin Jutras as she assisted her husband in sorting through the data.
There were stories of improvement in health, combating depression, distracting from disease and serving as therapy for a brain injury. There were stories of meeting a partner or spouse.
“It says a lot for music therapy, I think, and a lot on the emotional health, as well as physical health, of these people that get to participate,” says Kristin Jutras.
Thom Strickland, former activity coordinator of the ACCA Bentley Center for Adult Day Health, has seen New Horizons perform around four times within the span of three years. He held this role for five years prior to leaving last year, and he now works at another nonprofit in Athens, still helping adults with disabilities. He describes New Horizons’ energy and music as vibrant and infectious. He says the music lifts the mood, creates a fun atmosphere of dancing and assists in reaching the adults who spend time at the day center.
Strickland worked with many adults who have developed dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. He had repeatedly seen people with advanced Alzheimer’s, who may not be socializing or even verbalizing, with their toe tapping under the table during the performances. The music accomplished the center’s ultimate goal: reaching people and striving to make a human connection.
A smaller sub-group of around 12 to 14 New Horizons members gathers to practice on Wednesdays in the “short band,” which plays at nursing homes that are unable to accommodate the large group. But, whether it’s meeting for this extra, just-for-fun rehearsal or going out to a meal together after practices and concerts, the band connects in more ways than just musically. At the end of the day, they consider themselves a family, committed to their music and committed firmly to each other
Although Rendek’s husband passed away eight years ago, she has found ample support within her New Horizons community.
“Being from up north, I really didn’t have a big network of people down here, and this is my family. We go out to eat after every practice, and I would not hesitate to ask any member of the band for anything. Anything,” she says confidently.
For more information on New Horizons Band, visit www.ugacms.uga.edu/newhorizons.
Written and photographed by Margaret K. Harney