Liz Pahl Published

Discovering The Mental Health Benefits Of Old-Time Music Jams

Six people sit in a circle together in a room in a home. They each have a different instrument. In the center of the circle is a dog resting.
(Left to right) Hilarie Burhans (banjo), Mark Burhans (fiddle), Mark “Pokey” Hellenberg (mandolin banjo), Steve Owens (banjo), Julie Elman (bass) and Caitlin Kraus (guitar) are playing old-time music on a Monday night at the Burhans home in Athens, Ohio. Hilarie is a sought after claw hammer banjo instructor, and she and Mark also own and operate a local Mediterranean restaurant in Athens named Salaam.
Liz Pahl/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story originally aired in the June 23, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

This story is about the powerful connection between two unexpected things: old-time music and mental health.

You can see how the two come together in the middle of a cozy living room in Athens, Ohio, where the furniture has been moved out to create a circle for six musicians. This is the home of Hilarie and Mark Burhans, two seasoned old-time musicians who host a weekly jam session.

“I have been playing banjo for like 50 years,” says Hilarie Burhans. “I live in the town where I met my husband in high school and kind of had a crush on him because he played the fiddle. And I thought, ‘Well, you know I’ll play the banjo.’ But I quickly learned to love banjo for its own sake.” 

For the past four years, the Burhans’ old-time jam session has been thriving. This particular group of musicians came together during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they have stayed together for a reason you may not think of immediately.

For their mental health. 

Bass player Julie Elman explains why the jam session means so much to her. 

“It’s community and it’s through music and it’s uplifting,” says Elman. “It’s just so amazing. And I think a lot about how we started this during the pandemic. It was a sanity saver, I think for all of us.” 

It certainly has been for Caitlin Kraus, a musician who also happens to be a music therapist. 

“There’s the social and community aspect that people have mentioned, but I think for me, too, it’s a time at the end of what’s usually a busy work day,” Kraus says. “It helps me to zone out and relax in a way … There’s the social connection, but also the sort of inner inward connection.”

Mark Burhans, Hilarie’s husband of 45 years and the cute fiddle player she fell in love with long ago, supports what his fellow musicians are saying. 

“That’s a good point, the zoning out part of it is really good,” Mark Burhans says. “I can see how it would be really good for you. You deal with so much stress all day long at your job, and then to just sit there and [you] get to pound away at the guitar!” 

One especially great thing about old-time jams, is you can be a beginner musician and be welcomed into the fold, adds Hilarie Burhans. 

A variety of instruments are seen hung on the wall. Instruments, such as a mandolin, guitar, fiddle, etc. Underneath the images are black and white photographs.
Pictures of musician family members and collected stringed instruments adorn the living room wall in the Burhans’ home.

Photo Credit: Liz Pahl/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Everybody who attends our jam is at a different sort of stage in their musical progression,” she says. “And one of the things that I love about the inclusivity of old-time music is that a bunch of people who are at different places in their musical progression can happily sit down together and play a tune.”

Music Therapist Cheyenne Mize’s work focuses on how community music making increases the well-being of individuals and groups. Mize explains some of the science behind the mental health benefits of jam sessions.

“There’s a wealth of research literature showing the benefits of active music making and group music making. And in that research, we see evidence of enhanced social and emotional and cognitive well-being, including improvements in concentration and memory; reports of improved mental health and confidence, everything to a sense of purpose and connectedness and even protection against stress and depression,” Mize says. 

Even though we live in an age where technology allows us to easily be in touch, Mize points out that playing music together provides a more tangible type of connection. 

“We’re learning a lot more about loneliness and the devastating effects that loneliness has on an individual, and, you know, we all need more opportunities to connect to other people,” she adds.

A creative piece of artwork is seen on the side of someone's home. It features six drawn individuals playing music on guitars, banjos, a cello and a fiddle. There are also two drawn birds shown with them. The image looks to be drawn and is in black and white.
A creative piece of folk artwork serves as a warm welcome on the front porch of the Burhans’ home. This work was made by Indiana artist Sam Barlett, and features old-time musicians.

Photo Credit: Liz Pahl/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Back at the jam session, Hilarie Burhans couldn’t agree more. 

“I’m sure it’s improved my mental health to be involved in a weekly old-time jam session,” she says. “You can’t go through life alone. I think I’m happier and healthier. I think that playing music with other people is a lot more — I mean, it’s stress-reducing just to play on your own, but I think everybody needs to feel like they’re just sort of hooked up with other people.”

And that’s just what Monday nights at the Burhans feels like — welcomed arms of community and music. 


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.