Every loving parent wants his or her children to reach their full potential, but also knows that doing so can become prohibitively expensive. Manchester-based musician Ken Kozora is on a life mission to put a musical instrument in the hands of every local child who seeks to expand his or her musical horizons – regardless of family financial constraints.
As a young boy, Kozora was the recipient of a donated horn that ignited his own passion for music. He's been determined to pay it forward ever since. Horns for the Holidays is the program he founded in the fall of 1996 while pondering a means of doing "something kind for mankind."
It all starts with the donation of an instrument. Once Horns for the Holidays accepts the instrument, Kozora and his team make the necessary repairs in preparation for delivery to students identified as in need of assistance.
The motivation behind Kozora's mission is simple.
"It's the joy of music," Kozora asserts. "That's lost in the message that it makes you smarter and all of that. To me, the joy that people get from the music is valid in and of itself, and that's the most important aspect of it because you know we need some joy in the world."
Considering Kozora's background in music and musical retail at the now-defunct Al Nally's music store in Ann Arbor, it's also a logical means of giving back. With memories of disappointed customers leaving Al Nally's with used instruments that failed to sell, Kozora conceived a method of saving them from a lonely fate in the back of some dark closet while simultaneously helping aspiring young musicians to unlock their untapped talents.
If Kozora truly hoped to reach as many kids as possible, however, he needed some serious help. Not only would he require someone in the school system to identify which students would benefit most from his program, but also the service of repair technicians capable of getting the oft-neglected instruments tuned and in working order.
Enter now-retired Ann Arbor music teacher Ken Michalik and former Carty's Music owner and repair technician J.P. Manley. With Michalik and Manley at his side, Kozora finally had the means to get the gears turning. With the assistance of such additional key allies as the Performance Network and the Arts Alliance
, the trio were soon busy putting instruments in the hands of grateful students.
As an employee of Carty's and later Oz's Music
in Ann Arbor, multi-instrumentalist Joe Roesch also worked closely with Kozora over the years. Roesch describes Horns for the Holidays as "one of the coolest programs I've ever had the privilege of working alongside."
Once a student receives an instrument from Horns for the Holidays, it is his or hers to keep. And though the name of the organization is pleasantly alliterative, it's also somewhat misleading. Although primarily focused on basic school band instruments, Horns for the Holidays will actually accept all types of instruments. According to Kozora, the fact that the student – not the school – owns the instrument helps to facilitate a sense of pride within the recipient.
Over the course of the organization's past two decades, various other volunteers have donated their time and talents to the cause. (Scarlett Middle School band teacher Caroline Fitzgerald has most recently stepped into Michalik's former role of identifying students in need of instruments.) Today, Kozora estimates that his group has collected and distributed over 600 musical instruments.
As the organization continues its evolution, Kozora is effusive in his admiration of his revolving door of benefactors, the most recent of whom is Chelsea Alehouse
co-owner Aubrey Martinson. Martinson reached out to Kozora around three years ago to ask how she could contribute.
Having initially come into contact with Kozora through networking events hosted by the Arts Alliance, Martinson had grown increasingly impressed with the program while helping to collect instruments dropped off at the Chelsea Center for the Arts. When the Center for the Arts closed just one year after the Chelsea Alehouse opened, Martinson seized the opportunity to keep the program thriving in Chelsea by offering the Alehouse as a dropoff point. With the support of the Alehouse's annual collection drive, Horns for the Holidays kept going strong.
"It's fantastic knowing that all we need to do is open our doors, allow people to drop off instruments, and we've potentially changed a life," Martinson says.
To donate an instrument to Horns for the Holidays, just drop it off at Oz's Music or the Chelsea Alehouse anytime from November 13th to March 31st. The organization also accepts donations in its name to the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association. This year's collection kick-off begins Friday, December 2nd at the Alehouse with a performance by Creole Du Nord
from 9-11 p.m., and continues the following night with a performance by Annie and Rod Capps
from 7-9 p.m. following Chelsea's Hometown Holiday light parade
This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
Jason Buchanan is a writer, father, and film fanatic living and working in Ann Arbor.
All photos by Doug Coombe.