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Don Coffman standing with a director's baton.
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DON COFFMAN Sad to see adults leave music behind, the music educator and bandleader decided to coax some back.

As a high school band director, Don Coffman realized many young players would soon drift away from music. “I’d watch my students graduate and know most of them were never going to play their instruments again,” he says.

So Coffman launched the New Horizons Band, a program that helps former players—not to mention absolute novices—make music.

“If you want to play an instrument, I’m happy to give you the opportunity. And you don’t have to quit your day job,” says Coffman, today professor and head of music education for the UI School of Music and College of Education. “All you need is a willingness to learn.”

Don Coffman directing the New Horizons Band in rehearsal.Nearly 100 players—ranging in age from 50s to 90s—take part in the main band and a smaller beginners’ program based at the Iowa City Senior Center. The experience is good for the mind, body, and spirit.

“The most common comment I hear is that they enjoy making music with others,” Coffman says. “The social component is really strong, and we function like a big family.”

For some members, picking up an instrument is an epiphany. “One woman actually told me it was like a wave had washed over her and woke her up,” Coffman says.

Originally from Kansas, Coffman began playing piano around kindergarten, and later took up cornet and tuba. He became a star player in high school, studied music education in college, and directed a high school band for six years.

Upon returning to academe, he started pondering ways to expand music education beyond youth programs. An innovative project developed by Roy Ernst at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., gave him the model he’d been looking for.

Coffman’s New Horizons Band helped pioneer a growing music movement for adults, particularly seniors.

“About three quarters of our people had played before, but maybe not for 40 years,” Coffman recalls. “After a few months, we did our first concert, and we basically sounded like a fifth or sixth grade band. We had a sense of spontaneity, as I call it.”

Dozens of New Horizons groups now play across the United States and abroad—including six other bands in Iowa—and the local ensemble’s skill and reputation have grown. Some players even have formed independent groups with names like the Polka Dots, Second Wind, and the Old Post Office Brass.

Coffman’s program has earned him the UI President’s Award for Public Engagement, the State of Iowa Governor’s Volunteer Award, and the Outstanding Continuing Educator Award from the Johnson County chapter of AARP. He’s also established a summer band camp for adults and worked with area music teachers on initiatives for players of all ages.

Adult instruction is a departure for most university-based music education programs, which focus on preparing students to teach in K-12 settings. Coffman hopes students who assist with the New Horizons project will find new ways to take music into the community.

“I’m trying to awaken the notion that eventually their careers can extend beyond the classroom, that they can build closer connections between schools and communities,” Coffman says.

For his part, Coffman treasures the chance to get back in front of a band, especially this particular group. “I tell them time and again that I’d be perfectly happy if we never played a concert,” he says. “I just like spending time with them and hearing their stories.”

The experience has revitalized his playing, too. “Folks in the band love it when I bring out the horn and join the tuba section,” he says.

Sept. 10, 2007