New Horizons helps musicians revisit old skills

The music is important, but it’s not the only ingredient that holds the South Puget Sound New Horizons Band together.

After attending a band rehearsal Wednesday morning at aptly named Harmony Hall on the grounds of Washington Land Yacht Harbor near Lacey, I came away convinced this is a band filled with members who truly enjoy each other’s company — enough so that they’re willing to pay $40 every three months to be in the band.

“The thing about this group is that they all have to pay to play,” said band director Vic Jowders, 78, who served as band director at Lincoln, Wilson and Foss high schools in Tacoma from 1965 to 1989. “Because of that, we have no prima donnas.”

Jowders directs some 100 musicians from the Olympia and Tacoma areas, most of whom are senior citizens. Their musical backgrounds range from lifelong to sporadic. Some played in their high school bands, left music behind to pursue careers and raise families, and came back to music-making later in life.

Former Thurston County chief engineer Jerry Hendricks is the latter. He played clarinet in high school in Detroit and set aside his instrument for 42 years. He was president of the New Horizons Band group from 2003 to 2014, but this year is spending all his time honing his musical craft. He was joined by about 60 like-minded musicians at rehearsal Wednesday.

Retiree Kay Fangen joined the band 10 years ago and brings 70 years of flute-playing experience to the group.

“We’ve got quite a few band teachers and professional musicians, and we play everything from marches and show tunes to classical music,” she said.

Sitting in the chair next to Fangen is flute player Jan McKenzie. At 94, she is the band’s oldest member and has been with the group since it started with 17 musicians in 1999. McKenzie has been playing the flute since 1970. An avid hiker and camper at the time, McKenzie wanted to play music around the campsite. She figured a flute was just about the right size for her backpack.

The group rehearses 10 a.m.-noon each week in preparation for a free concert the band will perform at 7 p.m. June 19 at Harmony Hall, 9101 Steilacoom Road SE. Concert-goers are asked to bring a donation for the Thurston County Food Bank. The band has played a number of Veteran’s Day concerts and is a fixture at the Providence St. Peter Foundation’s Christmas Forest event each holiday season at the Red Lion Inn in Olympia.

The band also gathers for a five-day band camp each summer to play music and socialize. It’s equal parts camaraderie and music that brings the band members together, and keeps them together, Fangen said.

Most of the morning rehearsal Wednesday was spent on a complicated musical composition called “Chorale and Shaker Dance,” composed by John Zdechlik in 1971. It features a simple melody in the opening chorale, followed by the melody from the well-known Shaker hymn “The Gift to be Simple.” The piece features several “call and response” sections involving different instrument groups.

Jowders had plenty of advice to offer as the band worked through the composition section by section.

“Hang on the quarter note just a little longer, but if you hang on to it too long, it slows us down,” Jowders said. “That was better that time — you’re getting it. Trombone: that was great that time.”

“There’s a lot of variety in that piece,” said trombone player Ken Springer, a retired high school librarian who in 1965 I used to hear play in the North Thurston High School concert band in 1964.

The rehearsal moved along with fewer interruptions as the band played “Follow the River,” a musical work based on a novel about a young woman who’s trying to find her way home along the Ohio River after escaping Shawnee Indian captivity in 1755. Next on tap was a medley of songs from the Broadway musical “Phantom of the Opera.”

After a solid hour of rehearsal, it was time for a break, which featured coffee, cookies and banter.

The Olympia group is one of many New Horizons bands across the country under the banner of the New Horizons International Music Association, which was started 25 years ago by Roy Ernst of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Ernst wanted to launch an inclusive music program for seniors, building on the belief that music for adults forges friendships, lifts moods and improves health. The model seems to be working quite well in South Sound.