Jul 22, 2014

Music and ….

Scales To Scalpels: Doctors Who Practice the Healing Arts of Music and Medicine, Lisa Wong, M.D. with Robert Viagas

Please don’t all shout at once! I can hear the comments now: “But you always say that listening to classical music is in and of itself a completely worthwhile experience. It doesn’t have to be credited with any other beneficial properties.” And this is true – I do always say that. But I also firmly believe that music affects us in many ways, especially physiologically and – one could say for lack of a better phrase – spiritually, and that these two modalities are interconnected in some manner that goes beyond the ability of words to convey.

This is one of the reasons I am so personally thrilled that Dr. Lisa Wong was the featured speaker at The Discovery Orchestra’s Author’s Luncheon on October 10, 2014. Dr. Wong with Robert Viagas authored a book entitled Scales to Scalpels (Pegasus Books, 2012). This remarkable book tells the story of a remarkable orchestra, the Longwood Symphony Orchestra. Founded in 1982 by medical professionals and medical students, this volunteer symphony orchestra does far more than play concerts for the edification of its member-doctor-musicians.

As the cover states, the book “chronicles how the musical acumen of the talented medical professionals that make up the Longwood Symphony Orchestra affects the way they administer healing and, in turn, how their work influences their music.” And every concert is a benefit concert! For what – for whom? For the medically underserved, for treatment centers of various kinds, for drug abuse rehabilitation facilities. . .the list goes on and on. The members of this orchestra also take time out of their incredibly busy individual schedules to perform in chamber music ensembles for patients.

The book is filled with quotes for me to share, but among my favorites is right in the beginning of the first chapter: “Chances are your doctor has a secret life. As a musician.” This immediately brought back childhood memories of visiting Dr. Green, our family’s pediatrician in Philadelphia. In those days almost all doctors had their offices in their homes. We would arrive at Dr. Green’s early for the first appointment of his day, take a seat in the waiting room, and listen to the strains of Rachmaninoff through the floor of his living room as he serenaded us from above.

In her Foreword she concludes: “Our musical training helps us to listen, not just hear, and to recognize that there is a song in every diagnosis.” This so resonates with our Discovery Orchestra mantra – the difference between hearing and listening! There are also many individual stories told of the players – many quite moving. And then there are discussions of the healing properties of music, the effects of music on the body. I can’t wait to meet Dr. Wong.

But what if we have passed the limits of music to affect a cure? What if we are dying? This brings me to the second part of this blog Music and. . .

Music-Thanatology is a palliative medical modality founded by harpist, singer, composer, clinician and educator Therese Schroeder-Sheker. This use of music is not intended to “heal” in the sense of the word “cure.” Certified music-thanatologists, all graduates of demanding three-year program, employ prescriptive music – lovingly fashioned – to create sonic compound medicine which affects the vital systems of dying patients who may be in ICU’s or hospice settings. By sensitively syncing their singing and harp playing with the respiratory and heart rhythms of the individuals they attend, these musician-clinicians support the dying in their transitions.

I can’t even begin to imagine how close a music-thanatologist must feel to those for whom they sing and play. Words are really failing me here. But the good news is that hospitals all over the world have begun to offer music-thanatology. At The Discovery Orchestra we are privileged to personally know one of these extraordinary musician-clinicians. Alix Weisz, who regularly attends our Discovery Concerts and events, works with the palliative care team, under direction of Dr. Karen Knops, in the Department of Medicine at Morristown Memorial Hospital. What an incredible gift she has to bestow on others!

Music and. . .there’s a lot to think about here.