(Corrects name spelling in 12th, 15th paragraphs to Lamond)
By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - 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 U.S. 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 TakeLessons.com, 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 to date, all despite a slumping economy.
Or, perhaps, because of it.
"I think the economy has something to do with that," Cox said of the trend, adding that the downturn has 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.
Cox declined to give specific numbers for his business, citing proprietary issues. The company is privately held.
But Joe Lamond, 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 that predates the recession but has been heightened by it.
"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, and ... that is driving people toward these types of activities."
Another factor, he said, is the popularity of music video games like "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero," which have prompted many musical wannabes the try the real thing.
Lamond said music retailers are struggling like most companies but are holding their own in part from business generated by in-store lessons, instrument repairs and rentals.
Dr. Barry Bittman, a neurologist and head of the Mind-Body Wellness Center in Meadville, Pennsylvania, said he is not surprised that workers are seeking solace in making music.
He has conducted research showing that creative musical expression can boost the body's ability to fight cancer and is three times more effective than passive relaxation in reversing the impacts of stress on the body at the molecular level.
A separate study found that playing instruments lowered feelings of job-related burnout among a group of 125 long-term care workers in a nursing home and improved their moods. The result, Bittman said, was a reduced level of employee turnover and cost savings of nearly $500,000.
Like many among America's musically inclined workers, Levy's instrumental pursuits are geared toward a group experience, often with others in the same line of work.
He joined OffAxis, a group of opticians, optometrists and others in the eye-care industry who play classic rock tunes such as Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" and the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" for fun and charity. The band's name, a play on words that only an optometrist would get, refers to a common visual distortion known as an astigmatism.
The proliferation of professionally and company-based bands around the United States has even given rise to an annual "Battle of the Corporate Bands" contest co-sponsored by Fortune magazine. Last year's winner was Consumer Republic, a band from consumer products giant Procter & Gamble.
Bittman says such connections are a natural outgrowth of music as a primordial part of the human condition and the rise of civilization.
"Civilization probably began around a campfire, and the most primitive instruments were probably hitting rocks or sticks to create rhythms, and in sharing those rhythms I believe civilization evolved," he said.
Editing by Philip Barbara