Director Owen Heritage leads the New Albany Community Orchestra in a performance of a classical piece. The orchestra is part of the Kentuckiana Association of Musicians and Singers. | STAFF PHOTO BY BROOKE MCAFEE
Director Owen Heritage leads the New Albany Community Orchestra in a performance of a classical piece. The orchestra is part of the Kentuckiana Association of Musicians and Singers. | STAFF PHOTO BY BROOKE MCAFEE
NEW ALBANY—A few years ago, local pianist Owen Heritage was looking for a group of musicians to jam with in the Louisville area, but when he went to Google, he couldn't find an organization he could join.

So, he started the Kentuckiana Association of Musicians and Singers (KAMS), which quickly transformed from a small ensemble of musicians into something much bigger.

The nonprofit organization now includes the New Albany Community Orchestra and the New Albany Community Choir, along with group lessons in guitar, bass guitar and singing. KAMS also has loaned more than 50 instruments, hired a booking agent and presented free concerts at the Floyd County Library.

Heritage, who is president of the organization, said KAMS is all about creating opportunities for people to create music. It does not matter if they have never performed music in their lives or if it has been decades since they've picked up an instrument — people of all skill levels can join the choir or orchestra, and the music lessons are aimed at beginners.

There are no fees for the music classes or the ensembles — he wants music to be affordable and accessible to anyone, he said. The organization is supported through voluntary donations, and people are encouraged to give what they can afford.

"[KAMS] is getting the community involved in music and letting people know that they can do it," he said. "They can play a musical instrument, or they can sing in a choir. It's not just for the experts or the people who are best at it. It's an opportunity for everyone to get involved, even if they can't afford it."

The organization has seen plenty of growth since it first began more than two years ago. In November, the New Albany Community Orchestra performed at the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville, and Heritage is already planning to add more music lessons for instruments such as piano/keyboard, violin, ukulele and drums.

KAMS has used spaces in the Floyd County Library, ArtSeed Gallery and the Cardinal Ritter House in New Albany for its rehearsals and lessons, but now, the organization is reaching the limit of what it's able to offer with borrowed space, Heritage said. So now, he intends to find a home for the organization.

He recently created a GoFundMe page with goal of $35,000 to raise money for the "Southern Indiana Community Arts Center." He hopes to purchase a building that would house classrooms, rehearsal facilities, a recording studio, a concert venue and a community "hangout" area.

Heritage said with its own building, KAMS would be able to expand its programming and bring more community awareness of its services.

"One way or another, we are getting an art center in New Albany," he said. "I’m going to make it happen."

PROVIDING ACCESS

Heritage knows what it's like not to have access to music. From age 11 to 15, he learned to play euphonium at school in England, but when his mother and stepfather moved the family to an island in Scotland, he had to leave the instrument and the lessons behind, and he was stuck at a school without a music program.

His family couldn't afford music lessons, he said, and while he received some free piano lessons, they were sporadic. He studied music at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where he learned "a little bit of everything."

Now, in addition to serving as president of KAMS, he conducts the orchestra and performs with the choir and the monthly concerts. Although it collects donations, he has also paid for many of the organization's costs out of his own pocket, which his day job at the Lee H. Hamilton Federal Building helps support.

KAMS has provided him with both a network of friends and a mission to help the community.

"I just love it," Heritage said. "I’m having so much fun. I’ve suffered from depression for most of my life — like really pretty bad — and it’s like now I feel loved. I look forward to getting up in the morning."

KAMS guitar instructor Romana Bereneth was in between occupations when Heritage hired her in October. She said she likes that it is a "by musicians for musicians kind of endeavor," and it helped her out by giving her a paid job as a musician.

Her students include both kids and adults, and they can put "nothing to $100" in the donation box to support, she said. KAMS recommends students put in $3 to $4 a lesson, and if they can't afford that amount, they are encouraged to volunteer some of their time to the organization. 

Many guitar students are surprised when they begin to understand the music, Bereneth said, and she loves watching the moments where they realize they actually can play a song.

"If they practice — I told people five minutes a day is better than an hour a week — they’ll come back the following week and be like, I can play this song," she said. "It’s maybe only two or three chords, but to them, 10 days ago that was an insurmountable task."

New Albany resident Jennifer Richards attends the group guitar lessons with her daughter-in-law Trina Richards. They already owned the guitars, but they could not afford to pay for expensive private lessons to learn the instruments, Trina said.

"There are so many others in the class, and they all help each other out," Jennifer said. "It's a fun environment. You don't feel any pressure. There are some who can play a little, and some not at all."

When Clarksville resident Leesa Eason learned about the New Albany Community Choir, her "ears perked up." Singing is one of her favorite hobbies, and she feels blessed to have an opportunity to take voice lessons from KAMS and sing in the local choir, she said.

"I just love being able to sing," she said. "I don’t have a really, really good voice, but if you work on your voice, you get a little better. I just feel so welcome there."

Before Louisville resident Shellie Horton Blanton joined the New Albany Community Orchestra, it had been about 30 years since she had played the cello. She used to play at New Albany High School, and in the following years, she missed playing the instrument.

"When I quit playing my junior year, I had nowhere else to go," she said. "I don't have a music education, and I can't go play in the Louisville Orchestra."

The community orchestra provided her with the perfect opportunity to begin playing music again, and when she picked up her cello, it was like she had never stopped, she said. She now plays with a group of friends who used to play with her in the high school orchestra.

For Heritage, it has been moving to see the effects KAMS has had upon people's lives.

"Sometimes people will say, I’m so grateful to have this opportunity, and it’s so nice to hear," he said. "It’s all I want, and that’s what makes me happy in life."

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