Classical Music, Alzheimer's and a Personal Note

There is an interesting article in The Australian on the connection between learning, music, the brain and Oliver Sack's book Musicophilia.

The article provides a quote from the book, “Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician, but they could recognise the brain of a professional musician without a moment's hesitation.” Why I found this interesting is because my father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He's played the trombone all his life with many of the last 30 years playing with the Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra (he retired a few years ago - but still plays with a variety of other groups).

In another article by Jill Daniel about Sack's book says music can also helps Alzheimer patients (along with reducing stress and several other health benefits). An article by Denise Dado speaks about fending off the effects of Alzheimer's speaking about turning off the TV and listening to music. Yet another article by Barbara Jacobs, M.S. not only sites Sack's book but speaks about her own discoveries in terms of music and the effects on Alzheimer patients. All of these articles speak about effects of listening to music in terms of triggering memory responses - but not of playing music, perhaps, because the physical nature of playing music requires the brain to think before action. Therefore in listening to music, it is the stimulus which triggers memory. However, playing music requires the memory to exist prior.

When my father came to visit in June to hear the premier performance of my first symphony, we took some time in the week after the concert to get out a pair of trombones and play some duets. I was a pretty fair trombone player (some 25 years ago) but don't really play it any more. However, while the muscles in my lips and stomach (necessary for good tone and control) are pretty much worthless, there are some aspects of playing (like know where the slide goes and what the notes should sound like) I haven't forgotten. Because my father has kept playing, his physical skill is far above mine - then again, he was always the better player. Even with his Alzheimer's his playing is still pretty good - although I should amend that to say, we were playing duets out of an Arban's book we used to play when I was growing up, and one he purchased when he was in the US Army Band. He's played all these pieces before, numerous times, but certainly not for years (30 at least), so he might as well have been sight reading them.

As we played, there was a light in my father's voice, a smile on his face that we don't see very often. He truly enjoys playing the trombone, and particularly sharing the joy with me. However, the duets in the book get progressively harder, moving through the keys - which also increase their difficulty. The more difficult they got the more I was able to adjust to the changes, but he was not. When my lips finally gave out after a couple of hours of playing, I was playing more right notes than he was. Physically he could have continued to play, but the music was beginning to tax him mentally and so frustration was building. My lips were useless and it gave me the excuse to stop for the evening - at a time when he was still glowing with the thought of playing the trombone.

There were times during his visit that things didn't go so well. He gets frustrated because he can't remember things, and he used to love to go on long walks talking politics, religion or any number of cerebral topics, but now walking and talking aren't possible. Occasionally we talk politics (or music) while sitting in the evening; even those conversations are rare, and often move on to lighter topics because he just can't follow the flow of conversation like he used to. Playing the trombone is still something he does fairly well - as long as they are pieces he's seen before. Last year, when I was planning the concert for June, I considered having my father play in at second trombone for the concert - and glad I decided against it. He would have been trilled at the chance, but the music would have been very new, and the cross rhythms and style of the sound are wholly unfamiliar to him. So, while he might have enjoyed the thought of playing, I think the actual concert would have been more frustrating. Whereas sitting in the audience he was thrilled.

In an article by Anthony Hubbard about a woman, Kate Clark, suffering from Alzheimer's, the outlook isn't good. While there are moments of real joy in Kate's life, there are things she doesn't do anymore - argue about politics, drive the car or even cook. She still goes to concerts and helped organise a national conference on dementia in New Zealand in 2007. She is afraid that one day she won't be able to speak at all. The future isn't bright, but moments for today can still have joy and that's what she focuses on.

I don't know if playing the trombone helps my father remember anything else the following day, but it certainly gives him moments where all is right in the world. I'm glad he got to hear the concert. I'm even happier we got to play a few duets together while he was here.


Anonymous said…
Thank you for sharing these insights and experiences. I was just thinking about the differences between television viewing [and computer viewing] and music listening the other day, based upon something my wife said to me.


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