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“Playing for Time” - Music as a Prescription for Coping with Disease

Hello! We hope you all had a wonderfully spooky Halloween season. For our November blog, we’d like to share a piece written by GCAAE member, Amy Dennison. Amy is the Director of Education at CCM Preparatory and Community Engagement. She is a long time musician and crafter. Read Amy’s story as she enlightens us on the value of music and its connection to staying healthy and keeping your brain strong.


Those of us who have made the arts a major factor in our livelihood know the value and benefits of the art, aesthetically and intellectually. However, I didn’t personally understand the healing power of music wasn’t until I faced a serious health issue.

For me, music is play. I have never considered playing music to be hard work, but rather joyous play. Music has been part of my life since before I started elementary school. I have three degrees in music. I played oboe professionally (although my paid career has been largely as an administrator/teacher) for most of my adult life, but I play it less these days, in place of more manageable instruments. I have always loved playing lots of different instruments – traditional, classical, folk and world instruments, flute, and string instruments, including the cello which I have been learning for the last four years. Upcycled instrument making is my favorite way to engage all kinds of people in active music making, and for many, it is their first time ever playing an instrument. I consider myself a professional musician first and a person with PD (Parkinson’s Disease) second.

I’ve had two serious hand injuries due to falls, and surgery has had a negative impact on my oboe playing. Knowing what I know now about Parkinson’s, I have to wonder whether my falls were early warning signs of the disease, which can exist for years without someone realizing they have the disease. There are no obvious clues to suggest that we have this disease, until the tremors in the arm or leg become obvious. A person with Parkinson’s has a brain that is losing its neurotransmitters called dopamine. These are very important as they connect brain commands to the body so that we can function in our daily activities. It is estimated that by the time a person is diagnosed with PD that 80% of these transmitters are destroyed and gone. Dopamine cannot be replicated nor replaced in a person’s brain.

Ten years. That’s the typical amount of time you have between diagnosis and when physical and cognitive issues may become serious impediments to daily living. When I was diagnosed about five and a half years ago, my neurologist recommended that I just go about my daily activities and to make sure I exercised regularly, as well as taking prescribed medications which only help symptoms to subside, not cure them. Exercise is very important, but here is what I have discovered: in addition to all we know about the benefits of music, I believe my music making helps keep my symptoms at a fairly slow pace of progression. My neurologist is pleased with this, and I think I have taught him about the value of music making for people with this disease.

Our director in New Horizons Orchestra has a “Brain Strain” for us every week. This is a challenging exercise that forces us to really think and stay focused. We’re mentally exhausted after this, but it keeps our brains on its toes. Which is especially important for a brain that is under attack by a unpredictable disease like Parkinson’s; the brain needs to be as strong as it possibly can be. Here’s what a brain does when making music:

  • It is controlling fine motor movements necessary when playing an instrument.

  • It is instantly processing visual and auditory elements of a melody.

  • It is calculating and using mathematical precision to keep tempo and accurate rhythm.

  • It interprets and conveys the emotional sound/meaning of the music.

  • It synchronizes your music with all the other musicians you are playing with.

Watch this terrific short video that explains in layman’s language why making music is a great exercise for your brain:

Music, more than just for enjoyment or livelihood; it is powerful enough to heal, transform and change us. So join the choir, find a drum circle, or dust off that old clarinet in your closet and do you AND your brain a big favor!

#GCAAE #music #ArtsandHealth #Arts

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