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The beat goes on as a back-to-basics stress buster

FOR optometrist Howard Levy, nothing eases the tension of daily eye exams and mounting paperwork like strapping on a guitar and jamming with fellow eye-care professionals in a rock band dubbed OffAxis.

Levy, 56, who lives and works in the Southern California town of Carlsbad, near San Diego, said the recession has only escalated the headaches of his job - last-minute patient cancellations, bounced checks and insurance aggravation.

"But the music is totally a stress buster," he said. "It's the passion of our souls to play music, create music, bond with all these people and take our mind off our daily routines."

He is among a growing number of individuals in the US work force, many stressed out by tough economic times, who are indulging their inner musician by dusting off old guitars, drums and other instruments to pursue after-hours lessons and garage-band gigs.

Steven Cox, CEO of, a music-instruction business based in San Diego with a network of private music teachers in 400 cities nationwide, said 2008 was a banner year in revenue, numbers of students and lessons booked.

Business continued to climb in January and February, marking the five-year-old company's two best months, all despite a slumping economy. Or, perhaps, because of it.

"I think the economy has something to do with that," Cox said, adding that the downturn had coincided with a higher proportion of adults, many of them white-collar professionals, showing up among his clientele.

He cited the case of a 54-year-old investment banker in New York who recently signed up for lessons on the clarinet, an instrument she studied as a child.

"And she said, 'you know what? I work a lot. I have a very few number of free hours, and I just want to do something that's stimulating my brain while I can relax'," he said.

Joe Lammond, head of the National Association of Music Merchants, said his member retail shops have seen a surge in music lessons and recreational musicianship among middle-aged customers heightened by the recession.

"Especially in this economic climate, people are searching for something that has meaning, for something fulfilling," he said.

"The generation that invented absolute connectivity and being available to your work 24/7, I think we're rethinking what it means to enjoy our lives, and what we truly value."

Another factor is the popularity of music video games prompting wannabes to try the real thing, according to Lammond.


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