Above: Cobb New Horizons Symphonic Band, Christmas 2017; courtesy of Cobb New Horizons Band
Boyd McKeown recalls when a TV interviewer once asked him why he and other members of the New Horizons Band looked so happy when they played together.
“It had never occurred to me before that the stereotypical idea of old people was walking around with a frown and looking at life like ‘When is this going to be over?’” he said. “I have to say participating in music has a lot to do with our happy look.”
At 93, McKeown still wears that happy look. Once a week, he breaks out his trombone and makes music with other members of the Cobb New Horizons Band, one of three New Horizons bands in metro Atlanta. “I just like playing,” he said. “All of us do.”
McKeown’s been with one band or another for 79 years. He played in high school, college and military bands, directed the Marietta High School band for 14 years (the high school band room now is named for him) and then served as coordinator of instrumental music in Cobb County’s schools.
After he retired, he heard from some of his former students about the Roswell New Horizons Band, part of a national band program designed for players 50 years old and older. He signed up. “Music was my career,” he said. “Now, it’s still part of my life. … It’s a privilege to be able to do it at this age.”
New Horizons bands date to the early 1990s, when a professor at the Eastman School of Music in upstate New York decided to organize a community band of older players. “The goal of New Horizons groups is to create an entry point to group music-making for adult beginners and a comfortable re-entry point for adults who played music in school and would like to resume after long years of building careers and raising children,” program founder Roy Ernst says in an article published on New Horizons International Music Association’s webpage.
He was right. He formed that first band in 1991 and spinoffs soon followed. Now the association’s webpage lists more than 100 member groups in the United States as well as ones in Canada, New Zealand, England, the Netherlands and other countries.
McKeown joined the Roswell band in 2002, he said, and then about a decade ago, after settling in Marietta, switched to the one that had started in Cobb. Now, he said, he looks forward to the band’s weekly rehearsals and regular performances so much that he intends to stay with it “until they take me out in a box.”
Other New Horizons Band members echo McKeown’s enthusiasm. “Everybody is doing something we love, which is making music,” said Sandra Detjen, a clarinetist with the Roswell New Horizons Band.
Unlike McKeown, Detjen only recently returned to performing music after giving it up decades ago. She’s 60 and said that until about three years ago, she hadn’t touched her clarinet since high school. “I didn’t play anymore,” she said. Then, 39 years later, she had retired and “just wanted something social and something to do.”
She thought playing music would be fun, so signed up for refresher lessons at a local music shop. About six months later, she joined the Roswell band. “It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “You just become friends with these people because you’re playing music together every week.”
Mitzi O’Connell, who’s played with the Atlanta New Horizons Band since 2003, first picked up her flute in fifth grade. She packed it away when she was in college and left it on the shelf for decades, while she reared her children and tended to family life. She started back about age 50. “There wasn’t anything exactly that got me back in,” she said. “I picked it up and started playing music.”
The three Atlanta bands differ in size. The Cobb band now claims about 75 regular players. The Roswell band has about 50 members and the Atlanta band includes about 30, according to members and directors. The groups also feature smaller ensembles, such as jazz bands, that perform during concerts or separately.
Members must be able to read music, but can play at any level from beginner to polished pro, band members say. Members pay about $15 a month in dues, which is used for band expenses and to pay the directors.
Atlanta New Horizons Band Director Fritz Siler said the bands pull people together by giving them a chance to create music as a group. “Band and music is a funny thing,” Siler said. “It’s a large family, but it’s a close family,” the 71-year-old said. “It offers the sheer enjoyment of being around other people who make something out of nothing, and they work hard at it.”
Trumpeter Bill Snellings, who’s 66 and president of the Atlanta New Horizons band, said “the instruments we play need to be played in an ensemble. You can play trumpet by yourself, but to play concert band music you want a director. … The skill levels here are really all over. We’ve got some very good musicians and some very bad ones. We do not turn anybody away who wants to be in the band.”
Snellings said he played with a marching band in high school and still plays “the same horn my dad bought for me in 1964.” But he never really enjoyed the marching. “I hated it. I hated marching. I hated playing in the cold. I loved playing, but I didn’t need to be walking around to do it.” Now he sits comfortably as part of the concert band.
One recent afternoon, O’Connell and Snellings were among 22 members of the Atlanta New Horizons Band who performed for residents at Lenbrook, a high-rise condo for seniors in Buckhead.
Band members, dressed in white shirts and dark slacks, played a mix of familiar music, from the folk song “Shenandoah” to medleys of Gershwin, Sinatra and Henry Mancini tunes to a rousing march. Afterwards, Lenbrook resident Mary House thought their performance was “wonderful.” “My hands were clapping,” she said.
Jump on the Bandwagon
New Horizons Bands invite musicians aged 50 or older to join them. The bands perform for community events around north metro Atlanta, often for senior citizens in independent living facilities. Participants play at various levels, from beginner to experienced band member, but should be able to read music.
If you’d like to check out one of the groups, visit:
Atlanta New Horizons Band — visit online or call 770-978-1287. The band rehearses on Wednesdays at 1 p.m. at St. John’s United Methodist Church, 550 Mount Paran Rd., Atlanta 30327.
Cobb New Horizons Band — visit online or contact Don Walden at 770-941-7812 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The band rehearses at 11 a.m. on Mondays at the Maple Avenue United Methodist Church, 63 Maple Ave. Marietta 30064.
Roswell New Horizons Concert Band — visit online or call Art Geist at 404-247-7549. The band rehearses on Thursdays at Roswell Adult Recreation Center, 830 Grimes Bridge Rd., Roswell, 30075.
More information is available on the New Horizons International Music Association website, newhorizonsmusic.org.