Daily Bow: Using Our (Musical) Powers for Good



Daily Bow LogoLately it seems like science, the media, and the average consumer can’t get enough of what music can do for the brain. By now the public is well aware of the link between optimized brain activity (and the host of other covetable benefits that a better brain entails) and music, and that is, to some extent old news. Old news, though, doesn’t need to be boring news; sometimes it just takes a different perspective to cast a new light on a familiar issue and thereby illuminate it in a more meaningful way. The news is rife with articles about the brain and music, especially the potential that music, musical training, and musical creativity can help developing children. These stories are given such precedence that one might think that the young are the only ones to reap the benefits of music. Similarly, the classical music world keeps its radar screen full of projects to bring music to children of all walks of life–there are merit schools and projects in inner cities and all sorts of other truly incredible programs out there. But are children the only ones who need music brought to them?

The answer is, of course, decidedly in the negative. Everyone deserves to benefit from programs endeavoring to bring music to the masses, and it seems that in the music world’s fervor to empower children through music, a very important demographic has been somewhat neglected. This demographic is that of the senior citizen. It’s strange, really, that the classical music scene pays as little attention to senior citizens as it does, because it takes only a brief look around the average concert hall to understand that the audience at most events is most decidedly tipping toward the upper end of the age spectrum. There are widespread efforts to change this by recruiting younger audiences to build a sustainable future to for the art form, and these programs–many of which are related to the outreach-type programs mentioned above–are laudable in the extreme. But our greatest patrons are the older citizens, many of whom grew up in a society before widespread pop music and therefore have a devotion to classical music that far outstrips our own generation’s. These are the overwhelmingly our source of support, and, apart from retirement and hospice outreach programs sprinkled across the university, conservatory, and school systems, it would seem that we don’t really offer these bastions of the classical music community much in return.

A group of students from the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter Schoolin Midland, PA, are looking to change that. In something of an unprecedented symbiosis between students and research institutions, the students from Lincoln Park are partnering with a team of doctors from the Cleveland Clinic and a team of researchers from MIT to launch a clinical investigation into the question of whether or not music–more specifically, music composition–can slow or prevent deterioration of the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The partnership, arranged by the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute in Meadville, PA, will get underway in the first two months of 2012. The students participating in the study will spend two days a week in January and February teaching up to 40 senior citizens with mild cognitive impairment how to use computer software to compose music. The subjects will have no prior musical instruction. Barry Bittman, CEO of the Yamaha Institute, summed up the strategy like this: “What we’re saying is … let’s see if we can exercise parts of their brain that exist that have not been called into action before. If we do that, is there a carryover effect?”

MIT research fellow Adam Boulanger puts it another way: “You can draw in regions where music still exists to compensate for areas that are shutting down. Music touches on almost every aspect of human thinking, whether it’s memory and emotion, movement, how we think of space. All of these things have a music component.”

Music does certainly touch on almost every aspect of human thinking, and it touches on every member of society, no matter the age. The project at Lincoln Park is notable not simply for its make-up of students and experts, but for its unique and touching sentiment: it’s time for us to turn the tables and mobilize the youth of classical music to bring something to their elders.




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