Musical therapy

Doctor and composer join forces in putting together 'Symphonic Suite for Healing,' pieces selected by patients for their healthful effect.

February 27, 2014|By Michael Miller
  • Dr. Christopher Duma in his office at Hoag Neuroscience Institute in Newport Beach. Duma has recently been working on "Symphonic Suite for Healing" with American pianist and composer Mike Garson. "Symphonic Suite for Healing" is music used for patients living with various disorders and ailments to treat the human mind, body and soul.
Dr. Christopher Duma in his office at Hoag Neuroscience… (KEVIN CHANG, Daily…)

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.

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