Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 1, 2013

New business brings music to elders


---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Mary Sue Wilkinson is no stranger to the local music scene, but she’s added new venues, among them nursing homes, assisted living centers, independent senior apartment complexes, senior centers and senior expos, too.

Wilkinson and Tiyi Schippers, both early childhood educators and certified music teachers, formed Young At Heart Music, a new business that caters music, song and storytelling to youngsters just beginning to experience the joy of music and to elders with decades of life experiences and memories tied to music. It also provides early education training and professional development on how music engages young learners.

Wilkinson has played guitar since she was 12 and professionally since college. She has master’s degree in early childhood education.

She leads a vintage country band called Sister Wilene, a classic country music band. She also performs regularly with Drive South, an Americana music duo. She is best known for her 30-year-work in the band Iowa Rose, a roots band that played folk, bluegrass, and other music.

Over the course of her education career, she has worked as an early childhood and music teacher, started a charter school in Manistee County, and spent a year as interim director at Pathfinder School in Traverse City.

The inspiration for Young At Heart Music came from her father-in-law who lost language during the latter stages of Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia that robs people of memories and other brain functions as it progresses to profound amnesia. Dementia experts say music can help break the isolation of some dementias, stir long-term memories, and be used as a tool to improve quality of life and communication skills in Alzheimer’s patients.

Though her father-in-law no longer could speak, he sang in perfect pitch and knew all the words when she played his favorite hymns.

“Music doesn’t cure Alzheimer’s or dementia, but for many it does give back the songs,” she said. “It’s also something a caregiving family can do together with a loved one. Music is the vehicle.”

Schippers teaches music full time in the Pine River School District south of Cadillac. She grew up in a family of 10 in Chicago and also writes original children’s songs, musicals and books which she illustrates. Her puppet “Root Bear” has his own claim to fame with children near and far and her animal sounds are unrivaled, said Wilkinson, who calls Schippers “the child whisperer” because of her humor, teaching and storytelling abilities.

Wilkinson works mostly with seniors, while Schippers handles most of the early education training and professional development work.

Young At Heart Music offers a number of services, including one-on-one visits, sing-alongs (with songbooks), concerts, parties and special events for seniors, families and young children, and a program called Visiting Music Teacher. Rates range from about $30 to $100, depending on driving distance and other details.

“I’m also pretty negotiable,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson currently provides sing-along activities at Traverse Manor one to three times a month and interactive music for individual seniors at several homes in the area.

A client recently wrote after Wilkinson played in a one-on-one session with an elderly father who had always loved to write and play music.

“After you left last week, I noticed a remarkable change in his demeanor and his personality,” the email said. “He hasn’t smiled, truly smiled, in a long time. He joked with me for the first time in months and seemed so much more ‘in the moment.’”

“I think I’ve got the best job in the world,” Wilkinson said.

For more information, visit, email or call (231) 233-2948.