Musical therapy

In the 1950s classic "Roll Over Beethoven," Chuck Berry declares, "I got the rockin' pneumonia / I need a shot of rhythm and blues / I caught the rollin' arthritis / sitting down at a rhythm review."

The day may never come when music can cure pneumonia or arthritis. Still, Christopher Duma has witnessed other cases where a well-chosen tune can alleviate a medical condition.

The Newport Beach doctor has watched a Parkinson's patient put pegs in holes faster with the help of rhythm. He's seen a woman with the same condition dance a tango with accompaniment. And, based on his studies, he suspects that a song remembered from long ago — say, Benny Goodman rather than Daft Punk — can help focus the thoughts of an Alzheimer's sufferer.

"It's all the mind, right?" Duma asked rhetorically, seated in his office at the Hoag Neurosciences Institute. "It's all the brain."

On March 1 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the audience will get to hear a selection of music that has proved therapeutic. At the end of a program presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, composer Mike Garson will debut his "Symphonic Suite for Healing," 12 short pieces chosen by Duma's patients.

The collaboration between Garson and Duma represents a natural pairing: a musician who once dreamed of being a doctor, and a doctor who keeps an electronic keyboard in his office and plays in a rock covers band named — wait for it — Vital Signs.

"He plays the piano, and he played as a kid," Garson said by phone last week. "He kind of wanted to be me when he grew up. And I was a pre-med student, and I wanted to be him when I grew up. So we decided to do this project together."


Personal experience

That project started half a decade ago during a dinner conversation between friends. Garson, who had toyed with the idea of creating a symphony for healing, pitched the idea to Duma and soon presented him with 25 candidates for the piece.

Though Garson, in conversation, is self-effacing about his medical credentials — "My job is just to make music" — he knows at least something firsthand about the effects of melody on mental conditions. His son-in-law's grandfather had Alzheimer's, and Garson was able to focus him for brief periods of time by playing George Gershwin at the piano.

Then the old man, who often repeated statements over and over again, would break free and sing along.

"You wouldn't even know he had Alzheimer's until after the song," Garson recalled.

Duma, founder of the nonprofit Foundation for Neuroscience Stroke and Recovery and an advocate of music therapy, ran the pieces Garson gave him by about 100 patients and solicited feedback. The patients ranked each selection in four categories: how it made them feel, whether they would listen to it again, whether it alleviated their condition, and where it ranked for overall enjoyment on a rating system of 1 to 10.

From those components, "Symphonic Suite for Healing" was born. The symphony, which runs about 45 minutes, will conclude the show in the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall after pieces by Garson, Gershwin, Niccolo Paganini, Dave Brubeck and David Bowie.

That last name has long been associated with Garson, who played piano for years with the "Ziggy Stardust" auteur. At Segerstrom, Garson will lead a small combo on keyboards, with the Southern California Children's Chorus among those offering support; Lori Loftus, the choir's director, will also play the concert hall's massive pipe organ.


'Rigidity for fluidity'

To many in the Segerstrom audience, the connection between a catchy melody and improved physical dexterity may seem like an abstract notion. Onstage, though, will be proof of music's healing capacity.

Nancy Dufault, the Parkinson's patient who dances the tango, will perform at the show along with her husband, Bob. The Anaheim Hills resident was diagnosed with Parkinson's 17 years ago and leads dance classes for others with her condition every Monday at Hoag's rehabilitation facility.

The Dufaults, who recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, had danced together for decades by the time Nancy's condition set in, and they found that the movement helped to reduce symptoms. If the couple were about to go to bed on a cruise ship and her tremors began, they would simply get dressed and hit the dance floor until they abated.

"We've found that dancing to music substitutes rigidity for fluidity," Nancy said. "And what it does is it just makes you feel like you don't have any problems in the time that you're on the dance floor, because you can move with ease."

At Segerstrom, the two will dance a three-minute piece that combines Argentine tango with waltz — a combination that they requested from Garson. Several of the patients who chose the symphony's parts are expected to be in the audience as well.

For Duma, the Segerstrom performance will not represent the conclusion of a project but a step in an ongoing one.

The doctor's ultimate dream is to establish music therapy programs in Orange County and beyond. If his nonprofit receives enough donor funds, Duma would like to experiment further with the medium's affects on health — determining whether an Alzheimer's patient, for example, functioned better with a tune playing over an earpiece or if a brain scan showed different areas responding to diverse types of music.

"It can go viral," he said. "It can go nationally. There's no sense in just keeping it here in Orange County."

If You Go

What: "Symphonic Suite for Healing"

Where: Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 8 p.m. March 1

Cost: Tickets start at $25

Information: (949) 553-2422 or

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