LEXINGTON, Ky. — Through tickling the ivories a group of adults over the age of 50 at the University of Kentucky are learning ways to enhance their personal relationships and relieve anxiety all while advancing their skills on the piano. Through the new recreational outreach music making program mUsiKcare, UK School of Music faculty aim to enhance student training, wellness and community engagement through weekly piano classes.
Musical participation has been shown to provide both musical and non-musical benefits. Studies suggest that music can enhance cognitive functioning, reduce stress and provide valuable social support. Musical participation has also been shown to improve mood and decrease anxiety and even decrease burnout.
In light of the health benefits of recreational music making, Lori Gooding, director of UK Music Therapy; Vicki McVay, director of the UK Piano Preparatory Program, and Olivia Yinger, assistant professor of music therapy, have developed mUsiKcare with the financial support of a $35,000 grant from AARP to evaluate the impacts of the piano classes on socialization.
"The research tells us that being actively engaged in music making can improve people's health. It suggests that making music can alter our response to stress, and may even improve memory as we age," said Gooding, noting 2005 research by Dr. Barry Bittman, of the Mind-Body Wellness Center, and 2013 research presented at the International Alzheimer’s Association Conference by Erin Abner on behalf of UK researchers from UK's Sanders-Brown Center on Aging and Music Therapy program. "One of the things we wanted to incorporate in this class is socialization, because we know that being part of a group is important for their overall health and well-being. It is important cognitively and it is important socially. It's something we wanted to actively engage them in and is why we chose to have piano classes and not individual piano lessons."
The 10-week piano-based workshop emphasizes musical learning, group support and quality of life enhancement. Currently open to individuals ages 50 and over, the program utilizes technology, wellness strategies and learning methods geared specifically toward adult learners. Classes are one hour in length and limited to six people per class based on the piano equipment utilized in the course.
Librarian and Professor Reinette Jones, of UK Libraries, was among the first class of students in mUsiKcare who found the group lesson atmosphere very appealing. "What I like about it here is that there are other people playing at the same time, at about the same level, and it's not all focused on me. And we have fun, I like the aspect of having fun, and playing for your own personal pleasure. I love it."
And while the classes are open to beginners, participants get to enjoy their progress at an advanced rate. Set up for success with the aid of Yamaha CVP clavinova digital pianos, students hear what they are playing accompanied by an orchestra of sounds which helps fill in lapses in the performances until the player becomes more skilled. They can also follow lights on the keyboard, which will help them follow along with a new song.
"The program is multi-faceted and meets the expressive needs of the older adult learner. From the first day participants are 'hands-on' and actively learning by doing while enjoying the beautiful music they are making."
Classes begin with relaxation exercises and include not only lessons in learning to play the piano, but music theory lessons, drum circle participation, moments for improvisation, and the opportunity to accompany others on an instrument, skills that aren't often learned at such an early stage in music courses.
"They are learning and developing fundamental skills in music theory, they're getting aural theory, as well as traditional rudiments of theory. They are 'doing' everything from scales, to harmony, to rhythmic work. The program definitely encompasses music theory but it does so simultaneously (i.e. by connecting the familiar to the new) and actively (which minimizes memorization, etc.)," said McVay.
Playing music is also helping individuals with other physical and mental skills in addition to expanding a talent. "We know that staying actively engaged is one of the keys to cognitive health as we age. Music making pulls from sensory, motor and multimodal integrative regions of the brain. Playing an instrument requires reading notation, fine motor skills, memorization…it truly places unique demands on the brain," said Gooding, noting the 2010 research of Catherine Y. Wan and Gottfried Schlaug published in The Neuroscientist. "Playing an instrument also gives students the opportunity to disconnect from life stressors and relieve anxiety."
In addition to helping fill out the sound, the equipment and class also can accommodate those with impaired vision and other physical disabilities. Gooding and McVay hope to see the program and the curriculum they are developing to eventually target not only advanced older adult learners but even classes of caretakers, disabled veterans and children with physical impairments through modifications to lessons and the addition of other musical therapy programming for ill family members to participate in during class time.
"The technology allows us to focus on specific skill sets. We have ways to utilize the technology to guide them. Say a student didn't have one of their hands, or missing fingers or vision problems, or are maybe in a wheelchair, it allows us to manipulate the instrument to meet the student where they are and be successful--to enjoy making music with a community of learners, doers, and explorers," McVay said.
Gooding agreed the technology helps a myriad of different kinds of learners. "This equipment is truly a blessing when it comes to having needs in terms of playing an instrument. Because it has the ability to present the information in more than one mode, so you can hear it, you can see it, you can physically do that, that's going to increase the chances of you actually learning and learning more effectively."
As for finding the value in the class for caretakers, student Deb Martin, a retired neo-natal clinical nurse at Kentucky Children's Hospital, is already recognizing the benefits. "It is a stress reliever. I'm a long distance caregiver for my mother, which is a tough thing, so this is a nice outlet for me."
UK students will also benefit from mUsiKcare by both aiding in teaching and studying the group class dynamics. Music education, music performance and music therapy students will all get to participate. They will get to see how different people learn and what are the most effective and appropriate ways they can help students reach their goals.
Registration for the fall session of mUsiKcare is fast approaching. The cost to participate in the program is $225 per individual (including a $25 non-refundable registration/materials fee). Some partial or full tuition waivers are available to individuals interested in participating in the new program.
Beginning group piano classes will be held in the Fine Arts Building starting in early October. Space is limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Priority registration for UK employees ends September 17th. All others must register by September 24th. In addition to beginners' courses, an advanced course will be offered to the class of students that completed the summer course of mUsiKcare. Registrants will be contacted to determine the final schedule.