Blog Post

Taking up a musical instrument can benefit seniors

By Barbara Sherf

Ask many seniors and their musical instructors in and around Philadelphia and they will attest that you can indeed teach an old dog new tricks when it comes to playing a musical instrument—and those tricks are leading to improved memory and mental acuity, as well as a sense of accomplishment.

Musician Rich Rudin, 67, who opened Maplewood Music Studio in Germantown nearly 40 years ago (and more recently opened a branch in Chestnut Hill), is seeing more and more adult learners picking up an instrument not only for the joy of playing, but also to keep their brains active.

“Picking up an instrument and studying music is probably the single best thing you can do to keep your brain active and functioning well as a senior,” said Rudin. “Learning a language is a close second, but music is its own language and it uses so many senses, including the sense of wonder. That sense of wonder will enhance the experience of anyone at any age,
and the coordination of all these things is a big boost to the brain.”

According to a study conducted by the University of Montreal’s School of Speech and Language, musicians have faster reactions to sensory stimuli than non-musicians. And that fact has implications for preventing some of the effects of aging, says lead researcher Simon Landry in a statement on the university’s website. While more research is needed, the study suggests that musical training can change brain structure and function for the better.

“The more we know about the impact of music on really basic sensory processes, the more we can apply musical training to individuals who might have slower reaction times,” Landry said. “So if we know that playing a musical instrument increases reaction times, then maybe playing an instrument will be helpful for [such people].”

Mount Airy resident Ann Mintz, 72, played the piano as a child and enrolled in lessons four years ago under Maplewood piano instructor Larry Cohen.

“While I find it satisfying, I have always had a strong disposition toward doing things well, which is a barrier at this stage in life. It took me a long time to get over that and just play for the joy of it,” said Mintz, who along with her husband, Cliff Wagner, hosts house concerts at her home. “While I love good music, I had anxiety about not being able to perform well.”

Mintz has gotten over those doubts, as evidenced by her playing in student recitals and at jam sessions with other musicians. Fairmount resident Seth Laucks, who works for Living Branches: Senior Living Residential Community and collaborates with Alzheimer’s Association Delaware Valley Chapter said that in his work, he has seen evidence of the psychosocial impact of introducing music to individuals later in life.

“Often I am working with people experiencing a sense of loss and diminished independence who are feeling like they are not in control,” said Laucks. “Music helps give them a sense of accomplishment and mastery over some aspect of their lives. Sometimes a song will spark a memory; dancing or moving to music or playing an instrument might encourage that as well.”

Rudin said that most seniors he encounters know what instrument they wish to play, despite some encountering obstacles due to physical challenges.

“I think seniors are capable of learning well, and if they practice they can learn relatively quickly, but the physical technique aspect goes slower, particularly if they have arthritis or other physical limitations,” he said. Jazz musician and instructor Ken Ulansey shared a story about a senior who had a mission in mind when taking up the saxophone.

“I had a soon-to-be-90-year-old man come to me who always wanted to play jazz and decided to learn enough to sit in for one song with the band at his 90th birthday party,
much to the delight and surprise of family and friends,” Ulansey said. “The powerful effect of playing music on humans is undeniable. Music has the ability to transport us to a different time and place, to stir emotions and memories we have long forgotten.”

Mark Rothstein, 71, of Ambler started playing jazz piano under Rudin a year ago because he had always wanted to but also because he had read about the beneficial effects of playing
music on memory.

“Our family has had some nasty encounters with dementia, and I just had a nagging feeling that I’d better keep my brain as active as possible,” said Rothstein. “I always enjoyed listening to music and regretted not taking it seriously enough to learn an instrument. So when I retired as a chemist at the age of 69, I decided a year later to learn. Rich’s technique of taking complex, strange things—chords—and simplifying them make it much more learnable.”

For Rudin, who has been playing piano since he was about 5, there’s no question about the benefits that music brings.

“I know firsthand how music has not only enriched my life but also keeps my brain active,” Rudin said. “I’m well aware of the studies about the benefits of music, but even without reading more studies, I feel the positive effects each and every day.”

***
For more information, go to www.MaplewoodMusicStudio.com, call 215-848-8353 or e-mail maplewoodmusic@verizon.net. Maplewood provides senior discounts.


Caption: Recent University of Montreal’s School of Speech and Language study suggests that music training can change brain function and possibly prevent some of the affects of aging. (Photo: Barbara Sherf)