Mike Garson's New Symphony Literally Heals Mind, Body and Soul

A screen drops from the rafters, obscuring a section of the concert hall stage in the midst of a 44-piece orchestra and 50-member children's choir. As the musicians play the opening strains of an Argentine tango, two ballroom dancers appear in silhouette, moving gracefully behind the screen as the music swirls around them. The song ends, the screen slides away, and a septuagenarian couple, Bob and Nancy Dufault, are revealed as the dancers. Nancy, afflicted with Parkinson's disease, has trouble moving without a walker and is often confined to a wheelchair. But while the music plays, she can dance. While the music plays, she is healed.

The Argentine tango is just one of 12 movements in the “Symphonic Suite for Healing,” a music therapy project that will premiere Saturday, March 1st, at the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. Composed by former David Bowie pianist and rock star emeritus Mike Garson, each of the movements in the symphony was selected for the beneficial effect it produces in patients with brain-based illnesses. The Foundation for Neurosciences, Stroke and Recovery (FNSR) is sponsoring the concert with the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.


“I had a very grateful patient about eight years ago who had a benign brain tumor, and she said, 'You know, I hate my job, and I'd really like to give back to other patients and the community – can we start a foundation for brain tumor patients?'” says Dr. Christopher Duma, an Orange County-based neurosurgeon, FNSR founder and producer of the Suite for Healing. “I said, 'Why don't we set up a foundation for more than just brain tumor patients?' I see patients with Parkinson's disease, I see patients with dementia, so I said let's do it, and use the resources to help patients out in the community.”

The foundation provides support groups, fitness classes and patient advocacy for individuals with neurological disorders. “We've been reaching out for ways to help in the community, and we decided to add music therapy as our latest project, which has become a hot topic these days,” Duma says. “This is an ongoing project, not just a one-time event … The project is also benefiting the Alzheimer's Association of Orange County; the National Parkinson's Foundation; the RTH Stroke Foundation, a local Orange County foundation for stroke; and the Philharmonic Society.”

Duma and Garson started work on the Suite for Healing a few years ago after meeting through an unsuccessful online music school start-up. Garson spent more than three decades as the longest-tenured member of David Bowie's supporting band; originally a classical and jazz pianist, Garson has been gigging and composing since age 14, and has written more than 5,000 pieces that span classical, jazz, rock and pop music.

“I call my music 'Now' music, because I write it in the moment, and it's all based on improvising, in any style,” Garson says. “It takes hours and days and weeks to get [the music] on paper, get it orchestrated and assign who plays what. When I play live, these musicians will play … what were my improvisations a month ago, a year ago, six months ago. I'm going to improvise new stuff, in present time that night, so I don't bore myself. So my 'Now' music, for them, will be my 'Then' music, and I'm playing new 'Now' music. It's a little complex,” he adds with a laugh.

Garson wrote about 30 pieces of music specifically for the Suite for Healing, and played them for Dr. Duma's patients to identify what improved their symptoms, their sense of well-being and their mood.

“I started writing this kind of music as early as '79 or '80, so I might have about 500 pieces that were specifically for healing, but they were pieces I never thought of as healing,” Garson says. “One piece I wrote, called 'New Life,' seemed to win the contest, so I had to put that in – initially it wasn't in the show, it was a piece I had written in 1984, so go figure, you know?”
Duma monitored patient reactions by having them discuss the music with Garson, and tested Parkinson's patients in particular with ease of movement and motor control tests performed while listening to Garson's compositions. Duma also used magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a brain imaging technique, to visualize reactions to the music inside the patients' heads.

“One of the deep structures of the brain, called the basal ganglia, is the problem [for Parkinson's patients],” Duma says. “But if you include the basal ganglia with the limbic system, which is your memories, old memories, things that have been ingrained in your brain for many years, it can release the inhibition from the basal ganglia, and the patients seem to have no problem effortlessly dancing.” Certain areas of the brain–the temporal lobe, the frontal lobe–are entwined with our music memory, and entwined with our emotion. “That's why, when we hear a piece of music that we like, it turns us on!” Duma says. “It's a release of our limbic system in the pleasure area, and it just makes us happy. Certain music that you hear doesn't do that, it can turn us off.”

During the selection process, Garson and Duma had to winnow their way through compositions that did, in fact, turn patients off.

“Picture these 70- or 80- or 90-year-old patients – grouchy, right? One of the guys said, 'This isn't making me relax, this is agitating me!' So there was no shortage of opinions,” Garson says. “Studies all around the world are showing, obviously, that music heals. Everybody has pieces they like, that make them feel better – mentally, spiritually, physically. I'm not re-inventing the wheel, I'm just contributing to that motion, and making it a big moment.”

The two-part concert will open with Garson leading a 10-piece jazz group playing selections from Paganini, jazz legend Dave Brubeck, and Bowie's 'Space Oddity,' the lyrics for which will be performed by part of the children's choir. Garson will close the first half alone on piano with a medley of George Gershwin standards, and the full orchestra will take the stage in the second half for the premiere of the Symphonic Healing Suite.

“It should be an amazing show,” Garson says. “One never knows, because I usually go out with a trio, quartet, solo piano or a rock band – I'm going out with one hundred pieces on the stage, so it's a little nerve-wracking.”

Garson's original compositions are crucial to the future of the foundation's music therapy efforts, for the reactions they elicit and the rights to the songs themselves.

“A lot of music therapy programs around the country have difficulty because of copyright infringement. If you want to use a piece written by Enya, or some other mellow song, you have to get permission and copyright and you have to pay the person, unless it's a couple hundred years old like Beethoven,” Duma says. “We decided as a foundation to commission Mike Garson, so we own the music, and we can use the music to help the patients.”
To prepare for the concert, Garson had to make hard decisions that many musicians are familiar with: do we play songs for ourselves – or in this case, for the patients – or songs for the crowd? Usually, this means picking rollicking crowd-pleasers instead of show-stopping ballads, but in this case, the opposite was true.

“The problem I was facing was that a lot of the stuff that they liked was slow, and if you're in a concert for a couple of hours, you can't just play all slow stuff,” Garson sayd. “I tried to find some invigorating pieces and include a couple of those. I wrote a piece called 'Symphony for the Man in the Street,' and I wrote 'A Fanfare for A New Beginning,' and then there are some beautiful ballads.”

For Garson and Duma, the Suite for Healing's premiere is a starting point, and plans to expand music therapy throughout Orange County and beyond are already in the works.

“What I'm trying to do is hone down certain music that is good for the general public of patients that are not feeling well. Maybe Parkinson's patients like dance music or tangoes, while an Alzheimer's patient might like something that can bring them back to their past a little easier,” Duma says. “An ultimate goal is to put music therapy programs in hospitals, so patients can switch to the music therapy channel on the TV, and listen to that instead of the piped-in music that they normally have … The only hospital that has a music therapy program is CHOC [Children's Hospital of Orange County]. Apparently, they're ahead of us all.”

“I've done a lot in classical, and I've done all the standard jazz gigs, and I've played with all the famous jazz guys,” Garson sayd. “I'm going to be able to play this with any orchestra in the world once it's premiered … I think as you get older, you want to help elevate the consciousness of the planet, and I would hope that this piece will be part of that group consciousness.”

The Symphonic Sweet for Healing premieres at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr, Costa Mesa, (714) 556­2787, www.scfta.org, SAT. MARCH 1. 8 P.M. TICKETS START AT $25. ALL AGES.

More information on the FNSR and the Symphonic Suite for Healing, including concert tickets and donation options, is available at Music-Heals.com.

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