10 Reasons To Learn An Instrument As An Adult

Old woman playing pianoHave you ever found yourself wishing that you could play an instrument? Or rueing the day that you quit piano lessons as a kid?

I’ve heard too many people say that they are too old to learn music. While you might not find yourself traveling the world as a concert soloist, it is absolutely NOT true that adults cannot enjoy learning to play musical instruments.

Here are ten good reasons for starting music lessons now, as an adult:

Playing Music Is Good For You…

  • It’s good for your brain. You see neuroplasticity at work as you build new networks among your brain cells.
  • It’s good for your body. Depending on what instrument you choose, you can keep your hands limber, your core strong, and your lungs in good working order.
  • It’s something you can enjoy with others. You can join a band, sit in on a jam session, or play around with your family and friends.
  • It’s something you can enjoy alone. Playing music beats TV when you’re not up for socializing.
  • It’s a great springboard for creativity. You can use your new musical skills as inspiration for songwriting, composition, or video projects.


…and you’re better equipped to enjoy it now anyway.

  • You have more patience now, and definitely a better attention span than a kid.
  • You have better coordination now, which makes it easier to learn some technical skills.
  • You can value the process of learning over the product of performance. No worries about scholarships or contests. You don’t ever have to perform if you don’t want to.
  • You understand the value of practice. You’ve chosen to invest your time and money, and you know it’s worth it.
  • You can choose the music you like and want to learn. You know what you like and how to ask for help playing it.

Sure, you might not become a rich and famous musician starting out later in life, but there is no reason why you can’t enjoy making music for years to come.


Interested in learning an instrument? If you’re in the Kansas City area, I’d love to help you on this journey. Read more here then contact me to schedule your first lesson.

Eldercare professionals: Looking for tips and ideas for helping seniors play the music they love? Be sure to check out Soundscaping Source, our site especially for you.


Four Reasons To Hire An Entertainer Instead Of A Music Therapist

I’m a music therapist. That means I travel all over the Kansas City area, visiting nursing homes and assisted living communities. I’m always hauling my guitar and a bunch of other assorted musical gear. When you pass by one of the group sessions I’m leading, you’ll probably see a bunch of folks smiling, singing, and tapping their toes, enjoying some of their favorite music.

This all looks like fun, and it is! But I’m not really an entertainer. When I do music with older adults, I’m focused on things other than being entertaining. (More on that below.) In fact, music therapists are not always the best entertainers.

Here are four reasons NOT to hire a music therapist the next time you need some entertainment:

1. You’re having a really special event.

Many entertainers can put on phenomenal shows to make a one-time event super-special, but music therapists work by building relationships with individuals and groups. I discourage senior living communities from scheduling sessions with me less often than once a month, simply because the relationships that develop as we do music together take time to develop and repeated visits to nurture.

So, you should hire the best special entertainment you can for your special events.

(Exception: Music therapists can be great for a special event when they already have established relationships with the group or participants.)

2. You plan to have a huge group in attendance.

Because of our emphasis on building relationships and adapting music experiences to meet individual needs, music therapists usually work with smaller groups. In fact, I usually limit my groups to 12 people, allowing more with adequate staff or volunteer support.

By contrast, entertainers are most often ready to perform for as large a group as you have, and groups of performers probably work best with bigger groups anyway. (Can you imagine fitting a jazz band into a resident’s room?)

3. You want a particular kind of music.

Music therapists have a very broad basis of musical knowledge, some serious performance experience, and the ability to learn new music quickly, but we don’t know everything! I’ll be the first to admit that I am no substitute for a mariachi band, a steel drum player, or a hula dancer. A music therapist can only bring to the table whatever music experiences they have.

When you want a quality performance of a particular kind of music, hire the best entertainer in that genre.

4. You’re looking for costumes or impressions.

I can't pass as Elvis. Hire a real impersonator for that.

I can’t pass as Elvis. Hire a real impersonator for that.

Part of putting on a good show is looking the part, and I have seen some folks who were thrilled to see someone in an Elvis costume, or leiderhosen, or a grass skirt. When I come to a session as a music therapist, though, I can only bring myself, even if it’s my self in a grass skirt, joking about the fact that I’m in a grass skirt. I would never pass as a hula dancer.

When you’re looking for a good show, complete with fancy costumes or impressions, find the entertainers who are good at that.

In the meantime, DO hire a music therapist when:

  • You want to target specific communicative, social, emotional, or physical goals.
  • You want residents of varying ability levels to be able to participate actively.
  • You want to see some serious group cohesion-building.
  • You’re open to seeing some spontaneous changes in the planned program, all according to the residents’ needs on a given day.
  • You’re willing to commit to an ongoing music therapy program, with regular sessions to allow for relationships to develop.

Music therapists AND entertainers can help senior living communities and other eldercare groups improve the quality of life for their residents, especially when you let each of us do what we do best!


Kansas City folks: Interested in adding music therapy to your eldercare services? Contact us for more information.

Eldercare professionals: Curious to learn more about how best to use the talents of your entertainers, music therapists, and other activity professionals? Check out Soundscaping Source, our dedicated site for eldercare professionals.

Determining Music Preferences – The First Step in Caregiving Through Music

Photo by moodboardphotography via Flickr.com

I’ve been asked several times recently to put together a list of tips for introducing music in a professional caregiving relationship. It turns out I could write a book on that subject. (And I probably will – stay tuned!) More posts will come in the future, but we should start at the beginning – determining your senior’s music preferences.

Why is this such an important first step? Decades of music therapy research have demonstrated that music preference is a determining factor in the outcome of many therapeutic interventions. What music is best for promoting physical relaxation? Client-preferred music. What music is best for engaging clients with end-stage dementia? Client-preferred music. What music is best for decreasing agitated behaviors among clients with dementia? Client-preferred music. While there are times when unfamiliar or non-preferred music is appropriate in a music therapy clinical situation, client-preferred music is usually the starting point in clinical music therapy. Client-preferred music is also the best starting point for caregiving through music.

So, how do you determine what music your client prefers? Continue reading

Song Spotlight: T’ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)

  • Mood: Lighthearted
  • Theme: Letting go and taking it easy
  • Tempo: Upbeat
  • Style: Calypso

I’m always looking for songs with catchy choruses that lend themselves to new song verses, and I recently found a gem: “T’Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It).” Written by jazz musicians Melvin “Sy” Oliver and James “Trummy” Young, this calypso song was first recorded in 1939 by Jimmie Lunceford, Harry James, and Ella Fitzgerald. It’s a popular song for dancing the shim sham, a wonderfully accessible jazz line dance. (Check out the instructional video here!)

The chorus is downright infectious:

Oh ‘t ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
‘T ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
‘T ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
That’s what gets results

Then, the verse reminds you:

You can try hard
Don’t mean a thing
Take it easy, greasy
Then your jive will swing

The rhythm is catchy and gets you moving. Continue reading

Skin Hunger and Caregiving Through Music

Have you ever heard of skin hunger?

This phrase came up during a presentation by Dr. Melita Belgrave, a fellow music therapist, at a recent meeting of the Kansas City Partnership for Caregivers. We have an innate need for physical contact with other human beings, and “skin hunger” refers to the problem we have when we don’t get enough. It’s a rather stark phrase that describes the problem exactly, and it’s an especially significant problem for older adults.

Just a few minutes ago, I put my baby daughter to bed. She has a cold, and she was having a hard time falling asleep on her own, so I rocked her to sleep, stroking her hair and humming quietly. When Alice was first born, we held and rocked and cuddled her constantly. As research dating back to 1959 and Harry Harlow’s infant monkeys has shown, babies need physical touch for healthy development. I don’t know of anyone who would deny this these days.

That need for touch continues for adults, but many people wouldn’t identify that as a major issue for themselves. Most of us have little problem getting the touch we need, whether from cuddles and hugs with our families, pats on the back from our co-workers, or simple handshakes with business acquaintances. Sure, we get a sense of what it’s like to long for another’s touch when our kids leave home or our spouses are away, but most of the time, we probably get the physical human contact we need. Continue reading

An Irreverent Perspective on Aging in “Older Than My Old Man Now”

You’ve already seen it in the title of this post, but if you wanted just one word to describe Loudon Wainwright III’s new album, it would be this: irreverent. Let me add a second word, and it would be this: realistic. And allow me a third? Brilliant.

I love finding music and other artistic works that address aging, caregiving, and end-of-life issues. (Click the “review” tag for all of my posts on this subject.) I think no matter their medium of expression, artists offer a different perspective than those offered by journalists or academics. I especially love works created by aging artists themselves, like Glen Campbell’s most recent album “Ghost on the Canvas.”

Where Campbell’s album comes across as a poignant and somewhat sentimental goodbye to a good lifetime, spiced up with a just a bit of defiance, Wainwright spits in the face of old age from the very first track of his newest album, “Older Than My Old Man Now.”  Two of my favorite songs are also two of the funniest. In “My Meds,” Wainwright relates the woes of taking all kinds of medications just to function, and in “I Remember Sex,” a duet with Dame Edna Everage, he recalls the mechanics of his love life in the way one might recall a dinner party.

You can’t help but laugh with these songs (and feel slightly uncomfortable, depending on who you’re listening with!) Wainwright’s style is humor, so I would hope that the music-listening public would expect nothing less from him now. This defies some persistent stereotypes of aging, though – the assumptions that old people inevitably become crotchety and mean, or that people over 65 are all sweet grandmas who work on their knitting in the rocking chair and bake cookies for the grandkids. It turns out that funny, sarcastic people stay funny and sarcastic as they age, too. Continue reading

Song Spotlight: “Yes, My Darling Daughter”

  • Mood: Nervous excitement
  • Themes: Parenting, Moms and Daughters, Dating
  • Tempo: Upbeat
  • Genre/style: Big Band era

I’ve been trying to think of a good song to highlight for Father’s Day, but the one that keeps coming back is a favorite from my Mother’s Day playlist. There’s a fatherly twist, though, so we’ll go with it.

Yes, My Darling Daughter” is a 1941 song written by Jack Lawrence and made famous by Dinah Shore. The melody Jack Lawrence used as the basis for this song has an interesting backstory. The music is based on the Ukrainian folk song “Oj ne khody Hrytsju,” which is thought to have been written by Catterino Cavos in 1812. This same folk song was published in translation in 1816, and its English version did gain some popularity in the United States. Interestingly, the final phrase of the melody, to the words, “yes, my darling daughter” follows the Hyrts sequence, a melody common in Ukrainian songs and one that was used by several classical composers, including Haydn, Mozart, Boccherini, and Liszt. Musical motifs really do travel across time and distance, don’t they?

Daddy, may I go out dancing? Yes, my darling daughter!

Anyway, let’s get back to Jack Lawrence’s lyrics. In this song, we hear the conversation between a nervous young woman on her way to the dance, and her beloved mother. Here are a few lines from the beginning of the song: Continue reading

Take Off the Pressure: 7 Creative Experiences to Try with Your Loved One with Dementia

I heard a great story on NPR last week about a program that encourages creativity among people with Alzheimer’s disease as a medium for meaningful, enjoyable communication with others. In the TimeSlips program, a facilitator shows folks a photo and encourages them to make up a story about the characters in the picture. Without the pressure of remembering who people are or what is supposed to be happening (as might happen when you’re looking at a family scrapbook), someone with memory loss can have a fun time making up a story about someone else’s life. Plus, as one researcher pointed out in the NPR piece, you don’t have to be a trained therapist to try out storytelling with your loved one. In fact, you can try it out for yourself on the TimeSlips website.

I really love this concept, because it lines up with two ideas that I preach all the time:

  1. Creative activities – music, storytelling, dance, art – are universal human experiences that can be meaningful, even for a person with memory loss.
  2. Caregivers can engage in creative activities with their loved ones as a means of connecting with them.

Creative activities take the pressure off of both the caregiver and the person with memory loss. The person with memory loss may really want to remember the details of their personal history or their current circumstances, just as much as the caregiver wants them to remember, and knowing that they can’t remember can cause anxiety. At the same time, the caregiver is often distressed by their loved one’s declining ability to remember things. Each person’s anxiety can feed into the other person’s anxiety, and then time spent together is all about worry and fear instead of simple, fun, meaningful experiences.

When you’re making up something new, though, you don’t have to remember the details. The pressure is off both people. You don’t have to worry about creating a “stupid story” or “improvising wrong,” because the whole point is making up something new, in the present moment – something that only needs to last for the present moment, not for an eternity of literary critics and art historians.

You simply get to enjoy the act of creation. 

So, I had the fun of creating a list of creative experiences to try with your loved one. Continue reading

Song Spotlight: “Smile” – In Honor Of Mental Health Awareness Month

  • Mood: Melancholy, Warm
  • Theme: Smiles, Looking to the Future, Dealing with Difficulties
  • Tempo: Moderate
  • Genre: Ballad

May is Mental Health Month, and today people all over the country are blogging about mental health issues today. (You can read more and see a list of other posts on the topic here.) For my part, I am focusing on mental health issues among older adults.

First, a few statistics. According to the CDC, approximately 20% of people age 55 and older experience some type of mental health concern. Depression is the most common mental health problem among older adults. Depression causes emotional distress, of course, but it can also lead to impairments in physical, mental and social functioning, and it complicates the treatment of other chronic conditions. Older adults with depression use more medication, visit the doctor and ER more often, have longer hospital stays, and generally incur higher medical expenses than their peers. Depression can also lead to suicide, and in fact, older men have the highest suicide rate of any age group, more than four times the overall rate for all ages.

Now, here’s the kicker. Depression is NOT a normal part of growing older, even though the rate of older adults with depression tends to increase with age. In fact, in 80% of cases, it’s treatable. Depressive disorders are widely under-recognized, and untreated or under-treated among older adults. (You can read the full CDC report here.)

Why is depression pervasive among older adults? And why the common misconception that depression is a normal part of aging?

I’m not a physician and I can’t claim to know the ins and outs of the physiological changes that contribute to depression among the elderly. What I have seen, though, is probably what you’ve seen and experienced: older adults experience many losses, sometimes without adequate social support to deal with them. The passing of spouses and friends, retirement from a meaningful career, declines in physical or cognitive abilities, children and grandchildren living far away, fewer financial resources – the pressures and stress of all of these circumstances can contribute to depression. Add to that the fact that American society doesn’t really value elders the way other societies do – no wonder depression can become such a problem.

That brings us to our song spotlight: “Smile.” Continue reading

Song Spotlight: “Mama Tried”

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California – Dorothea Lange

  • Mood: Regretful, Defiant, Wistful
  • Theme: Regret, Motherhood/Parenting
  • Tempo: Moderately Fast
  • Genre/style: Classic Country

Mother’s Day is coming up in a few days, and in honor of the holiday, I’ve been sharing many songs about motherly advice and love with clients in music therapy. In fact, a few that I’ve spotlighted before work well for this holiday, including Que Sera Sera, Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy, Cuddle Up a Little Closer and Button Up Your Overcoat (although it’s a bit warm for that last one. Maybe it would work in the southern hemisphere?)

The fact is, though, that Mother’s Day isn’t always the happiest day, for the children or for the mothers. My heart goes out to mothers who have lost their children and children who have lost their mothers, as I know they are grieving at this time. My heart also goes out to the women who desperately want to be mothers but who have struggled with infertility or miscarriages. These losses leave holes in our lives that cannot be papered over.

And, I’m also thinking about the mothers who have been disappointed by their children. Parenting always involves ups and downs as children grow and life happens. Sometimes things don’t work out for the best, and sometimes children make serious and lasting mistakes, no matter how hard their parents tried to raise them well. This causes a different kind of pain, especially when you think that you are the reason why your child turned out this way. I’ve known mothers of adult children who have experienced this kind of pain. I’ve also heard the regret of folks who disappointed their mothers, who made those lasting mistakes and now can’t repair the damage. That’s the topic of this song spotlight: Mama Tried.” Continue reading