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Want to get back into playing music? Join one of Kansas City's community ensembles

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Courtesy of ensemble
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Soprano soloists Sarah Tannehill Anderson and Nicole Murray perform with the Heritage Philharmonic.

Amateur music-making is an integral part of Kansas City's arts scene. Whether you're looking for creativity, connection, or a chance to see your neighbors perform, learn more about a sampling of Kansas City's vibrant ecosystem of community music ensembles.

This story was first published in Classical KC's "Take Note" newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox the first Wednesday of every month.

An integral component and proud legacy of Kansas City’s thriving arts community are the people and organizations who engage in amateur art making.

The word “amateur,” after all, takes its root from “amare,” Latin for “to love.” Though many with a love of music choose to build careers in other fields, performing remains an integral creative component in their lives, a way to connect with fellow enthusiasts and engage in the arts community. Dedication to these endeavors can last decades.

“Community ensembles, and amateur music-making in general, are essential to a robust arts ecology,” says Lee Hartman, artistic director of the Mid America Freedom Band. “Not everyone wants to play or is capable of playing at a professional level. To be able to do that comes with a lot of privilege and sacrifice. People have lives. Expressing creativity and performing is a core component innate to many people's personalities.”

Often, community ensemble concerts are free to attend and kid-friendly, too, making them ideal for families on a budget.

Langston Hemenway, conductor of the Kansas City Wind Symphony, recognizes how these groups benefit more than just the players. “I believe that amateur ensembles give to their community in two ways. The first is for the participants themselves: the players. The second is for the concert-goers, often the friends and family of the participants as well as dedicated music lovers in the community.”

“I think the value is the idea of community,” says Chris Kelts, artistic director of the Kansas City Civic Orchestra. Audiences feel a sense of responsibility and pride when they know the people on stage. It's "more intimate, more ‘down the street.’”

These ensembles and organizations are made up of one’s neighbors — doctors, dog walkers, stay-at-home parents, accountants, school teachers, advanced students — strengthening the connection between performers and audiences. Typically, ensembles rehearse once a week during the concert season.

Volunteer ensembles also offer exciting performance opportunities, like concerts on the stage of Helzberg Hall, where the Kansas City Symphony typically plays, or on the field at Kauffman Stadium, where the Kansas City Horn Club performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 2019.

Haven’t played since high school or college? No worries! Dig your horn out of the closet and refresh those fundamentals. Membership to many volunteer- and community-based groups is audition-based, but dates and requirements are posted on the organizations’ websites. In most cases, the history of the ensemble, current leadership, rehearsal and concert schedules and location are also posted, with contact forms for those who are interested in joining the ensemble.

Here are a few of the volunteer and community organizations in the Kansas City region.

Orchestra for everyone

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The Northland Symphony Orchestra rehearses.

Kansas City Civic Orchestra was founded in 1959 as a volunteer/community ensemble. Many of the members have played in the ensemble for decades.

“Why in the world would anyone, not getting paid, commit to weekly rehearsals, give five to six concerts over eight months, and prepare musical selections that are challenging even to the most seasoned of musicians?” asks Kelts. “I think it is the idea of personal artistic enrichment.”

He sees his job helping the ensemble members “make music that is meaningful, achievable, enriching and something we can be proud of as a collective.”

One of the oldest volunteer organizations in the Kansas City area is the Heritage Philharmonic, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2019, having grown from 28 musicians in its first iteration to 60 musicians in its current roster.

Another long-standing group is the Northland Symphony. For more than 55 years, the organization has been a gathering space for professional, student and community musicians. It also has three youth ensembles, including its newly formed youth saxophone ensemble.

The Social Symphony is one of Kansas City's most recent additions. A message on their website proclaims: “With sheet music in one hand and a drink in the other, the Social Symphony of Kansas City is one of the best places to meet new people and get back in the rhythm of playing music again.”

The Overland Park Orchestra is funded by the city of Overland Park, Kansas, founded in 1973. They perform with the American Youth Ballet’s annual “Nutcracker,” host a Halloween concert and children’s parade, and perform throughout Overland Park.

Voices together

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Brian Rice
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Matthew Shepard (top center) and members of Te Deum

Some groups serve a purpose beyond pure music-making. The Heartland Men’s Chorus was founded in 1986 and their mission is to “build community, celebrate pride, and empower authenticity.”

The group has released over eleven albums and has received national recognition for their musicality and advocacy. Aspiring members can attend an open rehearsal to see what singing with the chorus is like.

Similarly, the Kansas City Women’s Chorus advocates for social justice and includes community service in their mission, along with their musical endeavors.

Many of the choruses in Kansas City — while technically composed of volunteers — perform at professional levels. The Kansas City Symphony Chorus, Te Deum and The Choral Foundation’s William Baker Festival Singers have all enriched the arts community of Kansas City with eclectic repertoire and high level performances, from music of the Renaissance to gospel to newly-commissioned work. The Summer Singers of Kansas City (also with The Choral Foundation) practice weekly throughout the summer to present a masterwork of the genre each August.

These ensembles typically charge for tickets, but they offer high-value concerts by highly trained singers and often have discounts for students.

Jump on the bandwagon

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Members of the Roeland Park New Horizons Band Chapter rehearse.

The Kansas City Wind Symphony has performed for over two decades, founded in 1998.

Langston Hemenway conducts the ensemble. “The KC Wind Symphony is made up of people from all walks of life, but the one thing they have in common is that they've all dedicated a lot of time honing their technique and ensemble skills, and having an ensemble that they can perform in is a crucial piece of the music-making process.”

UMKC Conservatory started the Campus Band this past year, open to non-majors and community members over the age of 18, founded by graduate student Anya Pogorelova and UMKC Conservatory Academy director Elizabeth Valley. Since it’s offered as a course through the Academy, it costs $40/semester for community members to join, but is open to all skill levels. Contact bands@umkc.edu for more information.

The Roeland Park New Horizons Band is for players 50 years old and up, some of whom have never played. The band’s motto is “it’s never too late,” and with help from music education students from UMKC Conservatory, members can learn an instrument and play in the ensemble.

The North Star Community Band was founded in 1988 by Faye Rader, who still conducts the band. They perform concerts throughout the year and also provide the musicians for Gladstone’s Theater in the Park.

Mid America Freedom Band’s slogan is “Come play with us.” Their mission is to provide “a safe space for instrumental performance opportunities, outreach, and social advocacy for music enthusiasts within the LGBTQ+ and ally spectrum of the Kansas City area to create an inclusive community that fosters and celebrates diversity.”

Though it started with only four members, Mid American Freedom Band celebrates its 20th anniversary and now has a full concert band, the Mighty Mo Combo jazz band and a marching/pep band cohort that performs in area parades.

“In community ensembles we give space to come together, to sit in a room with focused attention, the world around disappears, and we all contribute to making something none of us could do without the others present,” says Hartman. “The fact that we get to make art together, celebrate each other, clap during rehearsal when someone nails their solo or has a big life announcement, encourage, and uplift... to me, there's nothing more human.”

A community effort

The Kansas City metropolitan area boasts a thriving scene of community and volunteer ensembles. Here is a non-comprehensive list of additional ensembles to join, support and attend performances, in no particular order:

Don't see your ensemble listed above? We would love to include it in our list. Please tell us about your group by emailing classical@classicalkc.org.

Updated: January 12, 2023 at 12:47 PM CST
Additional ensembles not included in the original publication are now listed at the bottom of the story.
Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She's written for KCUR, KC Studio, The Kansas City Star, The Pitch, and KCMetropolis. Libby maintains the culture blog Proust Eats A Sandwich and writes poetry and children's books. Along with degrees in trombone performance, she was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University.