Making Music Empowers Seniors

Being in a band, or even just listening to music, boosts physical and mental wellbeing.

By Eleanor O'Sullivan

Beyond being entertaining and even uplifting, music can have a powerful enough impact to improve health, lift depression and encourage community engagement.

Katy Gaughan, who practices and teaches the art of drum facilitation, regularly sees music’s power to make people feel better. She is a certified drum circle facilitator and drum circle facilitator trainer who uses drumming for a wellness practice.

“Being a drum circle facilitator keeps you in good health. You’re moving to the drums, moving your body. Drumming, in all settings, with all populations, fosters healthy individuals who then create healthy communities,” Gaughan says.

Drum Circle at The Seneca
Drum Circle at The Seneca

Doing the drums lowers one’s blood pressure and increases the endorphins that help us feel mellow and at peace, Gaughan says, citing studies by the neurologist Dr. Barry Bittman, with his colleagues for the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute.

In a clinical study on the composite effects of group drumming therapy, Bittman et al. concluded that group drumming boosted the immune system to combat stress.

Gaughan presents Community Drum Circle events at The Seneca, an assisted living and memory-care community in Rockville, Maryland, where she does monthly drum therapy sessions with memory care unit patients. She also leads drum circles at churches, schools and retreats, for all ages.

Senior-band benefits

Scott Stratton is another believer in music’s contribution to health. He’s a CFP and CFA based in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a professional trombonist who was a teaching assistantwhile attending the Eastman School of Music ( His Eastman teacher, Dr. Roy Ernst, started the New Horizons Band in Rochester, N.Y.

“I had the pleasure of being their trombone teacher for a couple of years, to beginners in their 50s through 80s. Twenty-five years later, there are now more than 100 New Horizons Bands around the world. It is giving a lot of older adults a chance to be part of a group and to make music together,’’ Stratton says.

Scott Stratton
Scott Stratton

“There are physical benefits — helping to maintain dexterity, coordination, and breathing — with playing a wind instrument in a band. And perhaps even more important, are the benefits to mental concentration and emotional reward of being part of a group and working together on preparing a concert. Having a sense of community and purpose are important, especially after we no longer have ‘work’ filling that role,’’ he says.

“Many instruments will help with arthritis and maintain or improve your finger dexterity, control, and strength,” he says. “Playing a wind instrument, whether it’s flute or tuba, will require moving a lot of air, benefitting your lungs and breathing.’’

Stratton, a Rethinking65 columnist, founded Good Life Wealth Management in 2014. Six years ago, he established a subset of his firm called Finance for Musicians.

Making music in one’s later years, Stratton says, helps players reap benefits beyond the esthetic.

“Those who were participating showed lower depression and loneliness than other seniors,’’ he says. “I’ve had clients who continue to play music into their eighties. And I know many musicians in their 60s and 70s who keep on going strong!”

Stratton’s Texas Winds brass ensemble has been performing for 17 years at senior centers, retirement communities, and assisted living facilities in Dallas as part of the Texas Winds musical outreach program.

“During this time, we’ve gotten tremendous feedback about how much our audience looks forward to our daytime concerts,” says the former Texan who still performs with the ensemble in Dallas about six times a year and also has some concerts in Arkansas. “We have found that playing music that they grew up with, music of the ‘40s and ‘50s, forges a genuine connection. We all remember the music we grew up with; those years are frozen in time.”

“We will play for Alzheimer’s units and it’s very frequent that the caregivers are surprised to see the engagement, reaction, and even conversation about the music.”

– Scott Stratton

“They can feel like they are a young person back in 1955 and this emotional reaction seems almost universal and not simply nostalgia. We will play for Alzheimer’s units and it’s very frequent that the caregivers are surprised to see the engagement, reaction, and even conversation about the music. We aim to play a mix of music which they may know, and not to have too many slow songs. They really enjoy the energy of our live concerts,’’ he says.

Additional Reading: Professional Musicians an Accidental Niche for this Trombonist-CFP 

Drumming helps people connect

Gaughan, a certified Village Music Circle drum circle facilitator and global trainer, began drumming in 1998. An early influence was Jaqui MacMillan, who studied with master drummer Babtunde Olatunji. Gaughan also studied with the person she called the godfather of facilities drumming in the United States, Arthur Hull, another student of Olatunji.

“Arthur takes the drum and teaches you how to make it accessible to everyone and to use the drums to heighten the human potential for connection,” Gaughan says.

“I absolutely love how when people drum together, they just light up and connect with other people they don’t usually do that with. When people connect, when we see them drumming together, it’s a way they can express themselves without using words. It’s a non-verbal expression that’s very powerful because it gives us lot of freedom,” Gaughan says.

“When people do that, then hear how their drumming is connecting with the person next to them, and that this other whole song is created because it’s happening in a circle; that’s a powerful thing.’’

Gaughan uses West African-origin drums, of eight to 12 inches in diameter, such as the djembe, dunun, bongos and dumbek, as well as percussive instruments and mallets.

The size of the drumming circle can vary, but 10 is a good number for memory unit and assisted living settings, Gaughan says, depending on the participants’ abilities. For people who live more independently, a circle of up to 50 is effective, she says.

Opening act

“I like to open with one or two songs recorded by (Frank) Sinatra, Motown, James Brown; it depends on the group,” says Gaughan. The music is an ice breaker. It gets them shaking together. I lead them in movement and we warm up with arms exercise. The typical program is 45 minutes to an hour.’’

When Stratton listens to music for pleasure, he chooses the “great symphonies (Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, and Mahler).

“And I love listening to solo piano, especially Beethoven sonatas and Debussy. But my guilty pleasure is listening to the music of my teens, ‘80s bands like Def Leppard. Somehow, I seem to know all the lyrics on the ‘80s channel on my Satellite Radio. And that music makes me happy, too,” he says.

In a four-decade career in journalism, Eleanor O’Sullivan has reviewed many books on best practices for financial advisors, has written for Financial Advisor and the USA Today network, and was the movie critic for the Asbury Park Press.


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