What do Mariah Carey’s Christmas album, the soundtrack from “Frozen” and the Blues Brothers have in common? They are just a small part of the musical offerings from the Cobb New Horizons Band (CNHB), a group that offers seniors ages 50 and older who have musical instrument experience the opportunity to join an actively performing concert band.
The ensemble is a member of the New Horizons International Music Association, a movement started by Dr. Roy Ernst in 1991 that now has a network of more than 10,000 participants in more than 230 bands all around the world. Ernst, whose motto is “Your best is good enough,” encourages a supportive and noncompetitive environment for instruction.
“My philosophy was that anyone can learn to play music at a level that will bring a sense of accomplishment and the ability to perform in a group,” he said.
CNHB’s music director, Dr. Charles R. Jackson, shared the background of this talented group. “The band was started in 2005 under the direction of Marla Feeney with 10 members,” he said. “After her two years with the band, she was followed by Director George Broom, who directed the band until 2016.”
Jackson, a part-time assistant music professor at Kennesaw State University, was appointed director in April 2016. He retired in 2013 after 34 years as a public school band director in Cobb County, and a band member encouraged him to audition for the music director position after Broom announced he was retiring.
The Cobb New Horizons Band is a high-performing ensemble. Many of the members have played throughout their lives in high school, college or military bands, and some were music teachers or professional players. The 98-member symphonic band typically plays larger events, such as the annual Sunset Symphony in downtown Woodstock, which draws thousands of people, and performs roughly 10-20 concerts per year. It also has an affiliate group known as the Memory Lane Jazz Ensemble, directed by Carl Merwin. This band has about 20 members and plays at smaller venues that cannot accommodate the larger symphonic band, such as senior centers.
Before Jackson’s leadership, the band was not performing in the public schools, but because he has connections in the district, the band has added elementary, middle and high schools to its events calendar. An important part of the band’s mission is to let children know they can start playing an instrument at a young age and continue to play their whole lives. The language of music surpasses age limits.
Band members are able to play any genre of music, and the ensemble tailors its programs to its audience. If it is performing for elementary schools, it has fun pieces, such as Disney soundtracks. If performing for older students, it plays popular video game scores. At concerts for more advanced students and professional musicians, it has a long list of band standards from throughout history. The group’s extensive repertoire also includes popular Christmas favorites, music from around the world, swing band pieces from the ’30s and ’40s and even Broadway tunes. The musicians are able to play whatever is needed, and if they do not have the music available, they use their funds to obtain it.
When asked to recall a memorable story about the band, Jackson reminisced about Boyd McKeown, a beloved charter member who passed away in April 2018. McKeown, who was the band’s oldest member at 93, was instrumental in making Cobb County’s school band program what it is today, and many of the CNHB members were his students when they were in school. McKeown played trombone in the U.S. Army Air Corps band during World War II and later completed his musical education degree. He was the band director at Marietta High School and coordinator of instrumental music for Cobb County Schools and served as executive director of the Georgia Music Educators Association after he retired. He knew his health was failing, so he began planning his own memorial concert with the band. A month after he passed away, CNHB played that concert. It was a beautiful celebration of music and his legacy.
The band welcomes donations to enable it to continue gracing the community with its talents. It charges an honorarium for its performances to help cover expenses, such as weekly practice space rental fees at Kennesaw State, music purchases and an insurance policy for members and their instruments. Members pay a $15 a month membership fee, and there are no term limits to membership.
Those with prior music experience who want to join the band can play for one month at no cost to see if it is a good fit before becoming a full member. For musicians who haven’t played for many years, Jackson can provide less-demanding music until they build up their skills, or he can create a part for them, based on the score the band is playing, that fits their performance level.
For more information or to make a donation, visit https://cobbnewhorizonsband.com.
– Nicole Smith