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In Music for Life, older adults discover that it’s never too late to learn

“Students in Music for Life are learning different musical techniques, but the classes are also really about building community and enhancing mental health,” says MacPhail’s Tamra Brunn.

Ebenezer residents taking part in Music for Life classes.
Courtesy of the Ebenezer Society

At many senior-care centers, music programming looks the same way: A group of older adults sits and watches as a musician performs. Sometimes there’s dancing. Sometimes there’s singing. But mostly there’s just watching and listening.

A decade ago, inspired by the potential cognitive and emotional benefits of music education, MacPhail Center for Music and Ebenezer Society came together to develop MacPhail’s Music for Life, a program designed to help older adults get the greatest benefit from music instruction.

This spring, the program was awarded a $10,000 Community Arts Grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council.

One of the goals of Music for Life is to move away from the model of experiencing music as a passive activity. Older adults, even those with memory loss or other forms of dementia, can be active participants. The Music for Life program emphasizes music education, insisting that a person is never too old to learn something new.

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“This is hands-on learning,” said Tamra Brunn, manager of MacPhail Music for Life.

“In our classes, students are doing things like getting their hands on the instruments and learning about breath when they are singing. They are students, not just passive listeners.”

Sally Peterson, campus director of community programs at Ebenezer’s Martin Luther campus in Bloomington, explained that music is a great equalizer, a medium from which all participants, no matter what their age, can learn.

“Music is something that people carry with them throughout their whole life,” she said. “Even though during the later years many people face cognitive challenges, they see great benefit from music classes like these. People with severe memory loss may not be able to put a couple of complete sentences together, but they will remember lines of music from when they were very young.”

And being able — and expected — to participate in music classes helps build students’ sense of self worth, Brunn said. The motivation to expand senior music education to a participatory learning experience came from the sense that many older adults report feeling isolated from friends and family. Many move to senior communities by themselves, after the death of a spouse or partner or a serious health scare. Music classes are a way to bring everyone together at a level that doesn’t set one group up for failure. 

“I think the biggest mental health benefit is that sense of belonging and socialization that come with taking these classes,” Brunn said. “Students in Music for Life are learning different musical techniques, but the classes are also really about building community and enhancing mental health.” 

Humble beginnings

The idea for Music for Life came simply enough. Jeanie Brindley-Barnett, senior teaching artist at MacPhail, was working with a voice student who happened to be a chaplain at Meadow Woods Assisted Living at Ebenezer’s Martin Luther Campus. She invited Brindley-Barnett, who had “a love of working with older adults,” Brunn recalled, to work with a group of residents. The program Brindley-Barnett developed eventually became MacPhail’s Music for Life. 

Today, MacPhail offers a range of music classes for adults aged 55 and older at a number of sites around the Twin Cities.

“We now have about 25 partnerships,” Brunn said. “We serve over 1,000 older adults. We’re always looking to create opportunities for older adults to learn.”

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At Ebenezer facilities, for instance, classes offered include Music for Life, Sing for Life and Side by Side, a class that combines older adults with preschool-aged children attending a day-care center located on Ebenezer’s Ridges campus in Burnsville.

In the Side-by-Side classes, Brunn said, “Children are learning beginning music skills. Teaching artists are introducing them to tempo and signature and different pitches. The adults are leaning new skills — and teaching the children as well.”

The opportunity to spend time with young children is inspirational for many Music for Life participants, Peterson said. And the classes are not just time spent watching cute little kids, she explained. They provide learning opportunities for all participants; they’re not dumbed down.

“The senior and the child help each other with instruments and make music together,” she said. “They love it. They learn together. It’s a win-win for both.” 

Focus on a growing demographic

While most Music for Life participants live in senior care facilities or assisted living centers or attend adult day centers, MacPhail also offers classes and individual instruction for people over 55.

Brunn explained that her organization was ahead of the curve, anticipating the slowly graying population well before many other organizations took note.

“With the wave of aging baby boomers about to hit, there are more and more organizations taking a look at how they can best serve seniors and older adults,” Brunn said. “Our programming was as one of the first to take that into account.”

While Music for Life acknowledges the need to understand how to speak to an aging population, Brunn said, that’s still not the case in most music education programs.

“When you are getting a music degree, there are usually no classes designed to teach music educators about how to teach older adults,” she explained. “Instead they focus on K-12 or institutional music instruction. In our program, we have teaching artists trained in working with older adults.” 

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Ebenezer’s Side-by-Side, one of the Music for Life classes

Working with older adults is more than just speaking up or learning the words to their favorite childhood songs, Brunn said. It’s treating all students with the respect they deserve, no matter what their age.

“Our teaching artists know how to teach older adult learners,” Brunn said. “They tailor our curriculum and lesson themes to that audience. We interact with them as the adult students they are. We don’t want to be playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,’ even though they are beginners.”

Positive impact

At Ebenezer facilities, Music for Life students say they appreciate the opportunity to learn about music — and expand their musical skills.

“Music really seems to bring people together,” Brunn said. “There is that common denominator, that social and cognitive benefit of being part of something, being valued as a student or a member of a choir. It sends the message, ‘I’m worth learning something new today.’ They are being taught by professional teaching artists, not just any old somebody who can pluck out a couple of notes on a keyboard.”

Music for Life instructors try to take a creative approach to teaching, Peterson said.

“They might use a weekly theme like ‘The songs of Elvis,’” she said. “They might do something as simple as play the name game. They focus on songs that people can sing along to and also do movements and play instruments.” The participation factor is what enhances the experience: “Residents are getting that mental and physical stimulation along with the music and the singing. Doing those things together really stimulates the memory and helps people engage because they are participating, not just sitting and observing or listening to someone else play.”

And coming together to learn and participate helps improve participants’ outlook on life, Peterson added.

“When you are in a group and you’re all in a circle, everybody is at the same level. We are all participating together. The memory loss or whatever you are going through kind of disappears or is put aside for the time being because we are all able to participate or join in something.”