When Rhoda Powers was a teenager growing up in Burlington, Kan., playing the clarinet in the school band was one of her passions. However, she innocently noted to her band director one day that he looked a lot like Captain Kangaroo.
“He took issue with my observation and from then on, he made my life miserable,” said Powers, who now lives in Kansas City, North.
So in the 10th grade, Powers dropped out of band, closed her clarinet case and put it away for almost 20 years. Her days were filled by raising three sons and volunteering in the community when a phone call sent her digging in the back of a closet to find that clarinet, thus reopening a creative, peaceful place in her life.
It was the summer of 1995 and the city of Parkville, where Powers lived at the time, was forming a community band.
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“We were so bad in that first gathering, like the Hooterville band from the old TV show ‘Petticoat Junction,’ ” said Powers, 57. “But now, it’s helped expose a more creative part of my life, and I’m so proud to be a part of it.”
Powers now understands what many in the Kansas City area have come to know later in life: that music and performance saturates the human spirit in a manner that few other experiences do, elevating the quality of life for those who absorb it to an altitude that simply cannot be appreciated by those who have not experienced its power.
Kansas City is fortunate to have an abundance of outlets for those whose adult paths have not necessarily included creative performance like band or choir. An online search of all three topics reveals more than four dozen results.
Instrumental groups like the Parkville Symphonic Band, theatrical groups like the Mid-Life Players and choral groups like the Kansas City Women’s Chorus all tap into desires of those who want to enrich their lives. Some groups, like the Women’s Chorus, also stand up for social causes, such as empowering the lives of women.
That Kansas City draws such a plethora of artistic people doesn’t surprise Catherine Boone, a trained vocalist with expertise in opera who moved to Kansas City more than 15 years ago after living in several cities around the country, including St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn.
“Kansas City is certainly the most arts-rich community I’ve ever lived in, with so many opportunities for creative expression,” said Boone, 42, of Overland Park.
Yet despite the multitude of performing groups, Boone and a number of her friends noticed an increased difficulty in getting cast in musical shows after they reached a certain age. Their frustration led to the creation of the Mid-Life Players, a theatrical group for those 35 years old and beyond.
“We had so many friends who had stopped auditioning because there are just not a lot of roles given to people in their 30s, 40s and 50s,” said Boone, adding that directors frequently choose actors in their 20s to play more mature roles.
“If you’re talented enough to sing it or act it, it doesn’t matter that you may be curvy and not a size 2, you belong in our group,” she said.
One of the Mid-Life Players’ first shows was “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” From there, they’ve done “A Chorus Line,” “Into the Woods,” “Jekyll and Hyde” and a number of cabaret shows. The group will soon begin casting for “Bye Bye Birdie,” which they will perform Oct. 20-23 at the Just Off Broadway Theater.
Judy Lockett of Prairie Village was 70 when she received a call from her 82-year-old sister, Barbara, living in Las Cruces, N.M.
“Let’s go to band camp,” her sister said.
Lockett and her four sisters had all played instruments in their younger days, but it had been more than 50 years since Judy had touched a French horn. Yet off to band camp she went, dragging along the secondhand instrument her daughter had played in the 1970s.
“It was amazing how quickly it came back,” said Lockett, now 82. “You remember how to read music and how to finger, but getting your lips back in shape and your brain to coordinate it all is the real challenge.”
The band camp experience in New Mexico was coordinated by the New Horizons International Music Association, whose sole purpose is to introduce or re-introduce adults over 50 to instrumental music. More than 150 New Horizons bands play in 48 states and six countries.
A few years after Lockett and her sister went to band camp, she learned that a New Horizons group was forming at the Roeland Park Community Center in partnership with the Universith of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. UMKC music education majors provide instruction while gaining teaching and directing experience before their student teaching assignments. Phil Edelman is a doctoral candidate who leads the Roeland Park band.
“We are far more education-focused than your typical community band,” Edelman said. “Our goal is not just entertainment, but to learn and to improve.”
Through the Roeland Park Community Center, those 50 and over pay $70 per semester for lessons. The 60 or so members play three or four concerts a year, usually at the community center but occasionally at places like Union Station during the holiday season.
Lockett is so enjoying her time with the band that for their 50th wedding anniversary, her husband, Hoyl, bought her a brand new Hans Hoyer double French horn.
“I went to bed last night with a Gabrieli rhythm tapping in my head,” she said.
The Roeland Park New Horizons Band and others like it are the embodiment of numerous research studies that have documented the positive effects of exposure to and participation in the arts later in life. One of the better known reports is the Creativity and Aging Study by Gene Cohen conducted at George Washington University that measured the impact of professionally conducted, community-based cultural programs on the physical and mental health of people 65 and older.
The results were definitive. Those involved in weekly participatory art programs reported better health, fewer doctor visits and less medication use, as well as more positive responses on the mental health measures.
That’s one reason that McCrite Plaza at Briarcliff includes a choir in its offerings of weekly activities for the 150 or so residents in this Northland senior living facility. About 25 members ranging from their mid-70s to their mid-90s gather each Monday afternoon to sing a variety of music that many of the residents have known throughout their lives.
McCrite Plaza draws many together for weekly choir practice, said activities director Tom Wideman.
“Some come just for the social outlet, and that’s OK because we know that singing brings more meaning and longevity to life,” Wideman said. “Over the last year, I’ve seen the residents become more faithful to their practice on their own time and that they are taking ownership of the material.”
Barbara Dunn, 75, is the pianist for the group. She began taking piano lessons in North Kansas City when she was 6 years old and eventually graduated from William Jewell College with a music degree.
“It’s my therapy,” Dunn said. “It keeps my mind active, and I continue to learn new things. Playing is also good for the arthritis in my fingers.”
Patty Jones, 95, is an accomplished soprano, but she is also the socialite of the group. They all gather for dinner together in a private dining room after practice, but after each performance, Jones hosts a wine and cheese party in her apartment.
“We all cheer each other along, and it keeps morale up,” Jones said. “No matter where we are mentally, the music reaches us and makes the day better.”
Jones’ grandson is Bill Fickle, a member of an Irish tenor music group. He attends the after-parties in his grandmother’s apartment and leads rounds of singing.
“It’s always so much fun, something we all look forward to,” Jones said. “The music brings us such joy and always helps me feel better.”
In addition to singing in the choir, some residents of McCrite Plaza participate in a weekly improv class and are preparing to participate in the KC Fringe Fest production of “Dancing with Crow’s Feet” this July.
Some of the UMKC music majors who teach with the Roeland Park New Horizons Band may eventually end up playing alongside John Bell and his colleagues in the NorthWinds Symphonic Band. Composed primarily of music educators or professional musicians, the group formed in 2004 to provide those individuals an outlet for performing that their day or night jobs do not allow.
“There’s really nothing we play in NorthWinds that I didn’t teach in high school, but there’s a maturity that comes with the interpretation and appreciation of the music that makes our performances so different,” said Bell, 62, of Kansas City, North. Bell, who taught in Missouri public schools for 30 years, is currently artist-in-residence director of bands and orchestra at Northwest Missouri State University.
“Like any art form, your playing naturally reflects where you are in life, and that’s what mature individuals bring to a performance that makes such a difference,” he said.
The NorthWinds Symphonic Band rehearses at William Jewell College and performs four times a year at Park Hill High School. All performances are free to the public, but donations and advertising in the concert program help fund scholarships for music majors. The 2011 scholarship recipient, Joel Gordon, will begin his first teaching position in the 2016-2017 school year as band instructor at Platte City Middle School.
While most bands, choirs and theater groups simply provide creative outlets for their members and enrichment to the communities in which they play, contributing to financial and other needs in those communities is an additional goal for many groups.
The Northland Community Choir, which just completed its 42nd season, has contributed thousands of dollars over the years to Northland charities such as Hillcrest Transitional Housing, Friends of Parkville Animal Shelter and the Benjamin Banneker School restoration.
The 40-member group, whose motto is “making music matter,” performs at Graham Tyler Chapel on the Park University campus. Songs chosen for these performances reflect the work of the beneficiary. For example, when the Parkville Railroad Museum was the recipient, songs included “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Down by the Riverside” and “The Road Not Taken.”
“I’ve loved singing since I was quite young,” said Janet Geary, 65, of Kansas City, North, a member of the Northland Community Choir who met her husband singing in the high school choir. “But this gives you a chance to be a part of something larger than yourself.”
The Kansas City Women’s Chorus doesn’t consider itself a community choir but instead a civic organization, according to its creative director, Cindy Sheppard, 55, of Liberty.
“Our message has to do with issues of social justice and matters of relevance for women,” Sheppard said.
Through several outreach performances throughout the year, the 100 or so women of the chorus are in a position to spotlight and bring attention to a number of charitable organizations that address women’s needs. At an April concert at Rockhurst High School, booths in the Rose Theatre auditorium provided information about Gilda’s Club, the Women’s Employment Network and Court Appointed Special Advocates.
“We choose music that hopefully empowers women and encourages them to speak up for themselves,” Sheppard said.
Kelly Clarkson’s “People Like Us” and Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet” are among the pop music numbers the group has performed. However, as a member of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses, it’s not unusual for the Kansas City Women’s Chorus to sing music commissioned specifically for its purpose.
Now in its 16th season, the founders of the Women’s Chorus received inspiration from the Heartland Men’s Chorus that is celebrating its 30th season this year. Two celebratory concerts are schedule for June 11 and June 12 at the Folly Theater.
Despite the diversity in membership and purpose of the wide variety of groups in Kansas City, the common thread is the quality of life they all share because of music.
“We show people that music is a lifelong activity and can enrich your life long past high school,” said Steve Berg, 65, conductor of the Parkville Symphonic Band.
“No matter how difficult my day has been, I always feel better after a rehearsal and miss it so much when we take a break,” said Powers.“Music soothes the savage beast that is life.”