Fewer Shrinks, Regimens and Pills, More Singin', Strummin' and Jammin'


As the baby-boomer generation scoots beyond “middle age” towards the status of “elderly”, we are hearing and reading more about health related issues, both personal and public. Everyone, it seems is concerned with improving health by doing the types of things that can lead to a longer, more productive and vibrant life. There are many forms of health – physical, mental, communal and spiritual. Consequently, there are all types of health related strategies, programs and services, from diets, to exercise regiments, to psychologists, to psychiatrists, to personal trainers to the latest cure-all drug. So many of us are fixated upon the pursuit of that magic elixir that will cure whatever ails us. While these programs, regimens and drugs can contribute to improved health and vitality, we don’t pay nearly enough attention to, or invest enough in, what is perhaps nature’s most effective healing tool - music.

Music therapy, in one form or another, has been with us forever and its effectiveness as a healing agent is well documented. That said, it’s becoming apparent that we’re only scratching the surface regarding our understanding, let alone implementation, of music’s powerful and wide ranging potential as a healing tool.

The realization of just how far-reaching music’s healing potential is became even more apparent to me while reading a wonderful new book, titled “The Late Starter’s Orchestra”, by Ari Goldman. Ironically, I read about the book in a magazine published by the AARP. While I never imagined myself doing so 20 years ago, I find myself cruising the pages, looking for articles or health tidbits that might fit into a lifestyle that includes a fondness for rich food and smooth bourbon.

Like so many, Goldman had taken music lessons (cello) as a youngster and young adult, and, like so many, drifted away from it as career ambitions and family obligations interfered. The Late Starter’s Orchestra is the story of Goldman’s personal journey back to music as he approached age 60. He began taking lessons but more significantly, started rehearsing with The Late Starters Orchestra.

The LSO is an amateur, open to anyone community orchestra that meets weekly. It is populated with fellow “lapsed” or brand new musicians, many of them over the age of 60, who, for whatever reason, had decided to re-commit or introduce themselves to music. With a motto of, “If you think you can play with the Late Starters, you can play. You are in,” the LSO seemed like the perfect place to start.

At the same time, Goldman’s youngest of three children began taking cello lessons. These parallel musical journeys provide the palette upon which Goldman paints an enchanting picture of musical discovery and rediscovery as well as a vivid example of music’s most powerful characteristic – its’ universality. Here was a father and son, both working on and learning all of the lessons that can be learned through music participation - confidence, bandwork, discipline, communication skills and the sense of connection and belonging that comes with being a part of something larger than yourself.

While music’s positive impact on his son was significant, it was its impact on Goldman and his fellow members of the LSO – the adults and “elderly” – that was most profound. Through their participation in music, they felt more engaged, happy, connected and, quite simply, younger. In short, they felt more vibrant and “in the game” than they had felt in years.

I’ve witnessed this same impact with the Music For Everyone Community Chorus, an open to all ages community choral group. Several members have told me that it has made an enormous impact on their attitude and health, including one member who talks of how her lupus symptoms have subsided significantly since joining. Regardless of age, music’s transformative, healing power is enormous and still relatively untapped.

With Goldman’s journey fresh in my mind, I came across a December 12, 2014 article in CNN.com by Marissa Calhoun highlighting how the healing power of music helps wounded military veterans. The article featured the story of Capt. Greg Galeazzi, a double, above-the-knee amputee who also had a severely wounded right arm. “I felt a deep sadness because I’d thought I’d lost my ability to play music (guitar),’ Galeazzi said. But upon joining MusiCorps, a music rehabilitation program for severely wounded soldiers who are recovering at Walter Reed Military Hospital, he began to regain his confidence and made him more optimistic about his future.

The program matches wounded troops with professional musicians helping them, in the words of Arthur Bloom, the program’s founder, “to play music and recover their lives.” Participants practice technique, often on specialized instruments, write and record music or sometimes simply get together and jam. Some of them have gotten so good that they formed a band, the MusiCorps Wounded Warrior Band that has performed at some of the country’s premier concert venues, including the Kennedy Center and Madison Square Garden, and with world-renowned musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma and Roger Waters. No greater testament to music’s healing power is needed than the words of Galeazzi who said, that the program “changed my outlook on what is possible.”

Then there is the simple quote from a third grade student who was provided access to a violin and receives instruction through an MFE sponsored program, who said, “When I get mad at my sister, I go to my room and practice (violin), until I’m not mad anymore.”

Finally, I was referred to an article by Midori Koga and Frederick Tims that appeared in the October/November 2001 issue of American Music Teacher titled “The Music Making and Wellness Project.” The authors recap the findings of this study, which was designed to look at the quality of life and the physical and mental health benefits of active participation in music making for healthy adults over age 65. They found that participation in music activities reduced anxiety levels, levels of depression and loneliness and resulted in a 90% increase in levels of Human Growth Hormone (hGH), which usually decreases rapidly as one ages. Higher hGH levels increase energy and sexual function while causing fewer wrinkles and cases of osteoporosis.

While it’s clear that music’s universality makes it uniquely powerful as an educational and community building tool, what is also becoming increasingly apparent is that it’s power to heal – to keep the mind sharp, body in harmony, heart healthy, spirit strong and soul nourished is far greater than what we have ever imagined. In fact, in an age of rising health care costs, music’s potential as a healing tool will become increasingly valuable. This is particularly important as the baby-boomer generation reaches age 60 and older. And the more we invest in and study its’ health and healing impacts, the more apparent its’ larger benefit to society will become. In other words, music’s cultural and societal value is much more than the benefits associated with music for arts’ sake.

To that point, Koga and Tims pose an interesting question . “As teachers,” they write, “we might ask ourselves if we are members of the health care profession as well as the education profession. Perhaps this is not only an opportunity for us, but also a responsibility.” (p 22)

So while we are looking for various health related cures, whether for an injured body, broken heart, damaged soul or wounded spirit, rather than searching out another therapist, implementing another regimen or taking another pill, perhaps we should be investing in music’s healing powers instead. Because in the end, participation in music is not really about having to be technically proficient or world class, it’s about the sheer joy of connecting with others by engaging in one of nature’s most enduring and therapeutic resources for sharpening the mind, healing the body and enriching the spirit.

But to take full advantage of its potential in this regard, we must first understand, appreciate, advocate for and most important, invest in music at all levels – from preschools, to grade schools to seniors. In other words, access to music for everyone must become a fundamental aspect of not only our educational, but also our public health mind-set and efforts.

Which brings us back to the Late Starters Orchestra.

Goldman tells the story of an interaction he had with the women who sat next to him in the cello section of the LSO. She was trying to convince him to also consider joining a second orchestra, the Downtown Symphony:

“’I’m not sure I’m good enough for the Downtown Symphony,” I told Eve and Mary.

“You come,” Mary said, pointing her finger at me. “You may not live long enough to be ‘good enough’.” Here was another twist on the late-starter philosophy emerging. At this age – and Mary had a good ten to fifteen years on me – don’t put off things until tomorrow. Play now!’” (p. 13)