On Sunday 19th February, at 9.00-10.15pm, BBC FOUR will be showing a film about Barbara Thompson, professional jazz saxophonist and composer. Who just happens to have Parkinson’s. It goes without saying that music must play a vital part in her battle with the condition, although I imagine that there is a terrible fear that she will lose the ability to play. Thompson and her husband, Jon Hiseman (jazz-rock drummer and mainstay of the jazz-prog-rock band Colosseum) are apparently remarkably candid about their experiences with Parkinson’s.
This seems to be a big topic. Surprisingly so. But I’ve just come across a footnote in Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings that really made me think about music as a form of salvation in a way I have never considered before. It comes on top of a number of other small mentions that, I think, have had a cumulative effect on me.
I like music. I’m rubbish at it, but I like listening to it. I lean towards the popular rather than the classical, but quite often find that my favourites lie more in the realm of the alternative. No matter; each to their own. I understand that the music that effects an individual most on an emotional level is likely to be the most effective in terms of neurological benefit (this is discussed in much finer terms by Dr. Sacks in the excerpt reproduced below).
Singing is regarded as a useful activity for Parkinsonians (that’s a fancy word for People with Parkinson’s, or possibly even, People with Parkinsonian Symptoms). I’ve read and heard about it on several occasions, but recently my physiotherapist has been actively encouraging us – a group of recently diagnosed Parkinsonians who are attending a series of exercise classes that she is running – to form a singing group. Parkinson’s often affects the voice, reducing the volume, and actively singing can help to counteract this.
I, however, am pretty much convinced that I cannot sing. I think that I may be tone-deaf; I am even more certain that I cannot carry a tune. I suppose I will have to get over this.
Recently, while talking to my GP (general practitioner, roughly synonymous with family doctor), and discussing exercise, she asked me if I exercised to music. As she pointed out, the rhythm inherent in (most forms of) music is useful in establishing and maintaining a physical exercising rhythm.
And then there was the note in Awakenings.
This power of music to integrate and cure, to liberate the Parkinsonian and give him freedom while it lasts (‘You are the music/while the music lasts,’ T. S. Eliot), is quite fundamental, and seen in every patient. This was shown beautifully, and discussed with great insight, by Edith T., a former music teacher. She said that she had become ‘graceless’ with the onset of Parkinsonism, that her movements had become ‘wooden, mechanical – like a robot or doll’, that she had lost her former ‘naturalness’ and musickness’ of movement, that – in a word – she had been ‘unmusicked’. Fortunately, she added, the disease was ‘accompanied by its own cure’. I raised an eyebrow: ‘Music’, she said, ‘as I am unmusicked, I must be remusicked.’ Often, she said, she would find herself ‘frozen’, utterly motionless, deprived of the power, the impulse, the thought, of any motion; she felt at such times ‘like a still photo, a frozen frame’ – a mere optical flat, without substance or life. In this state, this statelessness, this timeless irreality, she would remain, motionless-helpless, until music came: ‘Songs, tunes I knew from years ago, catchy tunes, rhythmic tunes, the sort I loved to dance to.’
With this sudden imagining of music, this coming of spontaneous inner music, the power of motion, action, would suddenly return, and the sense of substance and restored personality and reality; now, as Edith T. put it, she could ‘dance out of frame’, the flat frozen visualness in which she was trapped, and move freely and gracefully: ‘It was like suddenly remembering myself, my own living tune.’ But then, just as suddenly, the inner music would cease, and with this all motion and actuality would vanish, and she would fall instantly, once again, into a Parkinsonian abyss.
I am often asked what music can serve to awaken such patients, and what precisely is going on at such times. Rhythmic impetus has to be present, but has to be ’embedded’ in melody. Raw overpowering rhythm, which cannot be so embedded, causes a pathological jerking, it coerces instead of freeing the patient, and thus has an anti-musical effect. Shapeless crooning (‘slush’, Miss D. calls this), without sufficient rhythmic/motor power, fails to move her – either emotionally or motorically – at all. One is reminded here of Nietzsche’s definition regarding the pathology of music: here he sees, first and foremost, ‘degeneration of the sense of rhythm’. ‘Degenerate’ music sickens and forces, ‘healthy’ music heals and frees. This was precisely Miss D.’s experience: she could never abide ‘banging’ or slush’, and required a firm but ‘shapely’ music.
Would any music, then, provided it was firm and shapely, serve to get Frances D. going in the right way? By no means. The only music which affected her in the right way was music she could enjoy; only music which moved her ‘soul’ had this power to move her body. ‘She was only moved by music which moved her.’ The ‘movement’ was simultaneously emotional and motoric, and essentially autonomous (this distinguishing it from passive jerkings and pathology).
(Oliver Sacks, note 45, p.60 Awakenings, 1990 paperback edition. From the section describing Frances D.
Transcription from www.acamedia.info)
Now, I do not – at present – suffer from freezing or paralysis (apart from very, very brief interludes when I get ‘stuck’ in a difficult position of my own making because I’ve insisted on clambering over things), but I can see how music could act upon the brain to prompt movement. It must be similar to the way in which rhythm can assist exercise – as per my doctor’s suggestion – and, of course, to the idea behind all forms of dance.
It certainly sounds like an excellent excuse to play music more often!