Stay Sharp!

By Krista Karney

How many times has someone told you that they wish they had learned an instrument? Or, that they used to play an instrument but gave it up and wish that they hadn’t?

I wish I could tell you how many times I have heard any of these statements. Countless people have said them to me over the years, at open houses; at concerts; at social events; at casual meetings. This is the inspiration for Stay Sharp Music.

Brain research clearly shows the benefits of music for all ages, from listening to music to relieve stress, lessen pain and enhance performance, to the cognitive benefits of active music making, which has been shown to stave off dementia, increase overall well-being and enhance social connections.

Music education in the United States has primarily been focused towards youth. Only a handful of music education offerings have been targeted at adults, such as adult piano lessons and New Horizons. Music therapy focuses on the psychological benefits of music but is mostly targeted to special needs populations and pain therapy. A population that has been neglected is that of mature adults, such as today’s Baby Boomers.

The Baby Boom generation is transitioning from the workforce to a retired population. As Boomers retire, social connections are weakened, and a sense of “what do I do now?” may set in. Additionally, concern about cognitive health has fueled the market of “brain games” such as Mind Games Pro. While brain games do provide cognitive stimulation (and a past-time), they do not offer interactions in a social context, or develop a physical skill.

Stay Sharp Music would like to bring the benefits of music making to adults through two avenues. The first is geared towards adults who would like to learn (or re-learn) a band instrument, whether it is to play at home, in a small chamber group or to join a community band, of which there are several in our geographical area. Lessons are offered at a community center, or for an additional nominal fee, in the student’s home. Stay Sharp Music can help students find an instrument, either through a rental program at area music stores, or assist in purchasing a good-quality new or used instrument.

In the Central Susquehanna Valley, we are fortunate to have several community bands. Within a one hour radius, there are approximately 10. Some bands meet on a weekly basis; some meet a few times a year for a few rehearsals prior to a concert. Many musicians play with more than one band. The ages of the musicians range from middle school age through 90+. The playing ability varies considerably, but, with few exceptions, all are welcome. Through rehearsals and performances, bonds are created and social circles are expanded.

One fantastic example of the benefits of music making that I recently witnessed involves a member of one of the community bands that I perform with. This was an older gentleman, in his 70s. Recent health problems caused him to be confined to a wheelchair, to depend on a feeding tube for nourishment, and for most of his speaking ability to be absent . Most people with health issues such as these would be socially isolated and limited in activities. However, this gentleman was still able to play his alto saxophone and continued to play with the community band, including performing on stage during a formal concert. His wife wheeled him on stage and assembled his saxophone; the musicians on either side of him helped to change the music on his stand. I can only imagine the significance of this experience for this gentleman. To rely on others for almost every basic need is a humbling experience. To turn this around and become a contributing member of a group, even for only an hour or two, must surely restore dignity and sense of worth.

Another option for private lessons is for recorder. Small, light, portable, a low volume level, and a minimal investment, recorder is an ideal option for a student to try out music lessons, or for someone who lives in an apartment. The recorder is also ideal as a sort of “therapy” instrument for people who may not have much strength or fine-motor skill control.

The second avenue is geared towards adults in assisted-living communities. Class recorder lessons can provide a social outlet during the class time, as well as a solo or small-group activity between lessons. In addition to the social benefits, cognitive functions can improve. Not only would this provide an additional activity, during the class time, but it would also provide individual activity time between the classes and could encourage residents to practice together and play duets.

An additional benefit of learning an instrument could be seen with people who are in need of occupational therapy and physical therapy. The repetitious fine motor skill movements of learning an instrument could replace and/or enhance some of the exercises of occupational and physical therapy. There would be an inherent reward system (learning a song) as well as immediate aural feedback (note and rhythm accuracy). The added bonus of learning music which can be applied in other areas of life in place of exercises that restore function, but do not otherwise add a skill, could be a motivation to continue therapy and have a more concrete marker of progress.

As an undergraduate, I taught in the Preparatory Program at Susquehanna University. Students provided lessons to members of the community for a low cost. One of the students who was matched with me was a middle-aged woman who had Multiple Sclerosis. Her doctor recommended to her that she learn an instrument as a sort of therapy, and she took recorder lessons from me. At first, I was hesitant-I was a music education major to teach children, not adults and I had no interest in doing any sort of therapy. However, teaching this student was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career, and, I believe, immensely rewarding to the student.

This experience has stayed with me through the years. Throughout my career teaching band, general music and chorus to (mostly) middle school aged students, this concept of bringing musical education to adults has been fermenting. I always thought that this would be something I would do when I retired, after teaching for 30 or more years. Through some twists and turns in life, I have the opportunity to launch my concept now. I would like to partner with counselors, doctors, physical therapists, occupational therapists and activities directors to bring these benefits to as many people as possible.

Research in cognitive science expounds the virtues of lifelong learning, of staying active, of remaining productive, of continuing to interact with people of various ages. Participating in music making is a holistic avenue for acquiring the advantages of all of the recommended activities. In addition to the social interaction provided through music, music also lends itself well to a solitary activity, albeit one that can relieve loneliness. As Thirty Seconds to Mars guitarist Tomo Milicevic has said, “As long as there’s music, you’re never alone.”


Krista Carney is the founder of Stay Sharp Music. She is a teacher, musician and mother who would like to teach the world to play a band instrument. Learn more about Stay Sharp Music at and


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