Search the Synapse

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Music Therapy for Cerebral Palsy: The Carter School

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: Day 5
This morning, groups of three of us went to the Carter School for Cerebral Palsy to observe music therapy. The sessions were led by Sarah Blacker and music therapy students from Berklee. Each session consisted of around four students, each with various degrees of cerebral palsy or autism.

We witnessed how music could help the students with movement (such as using arm movements to hit a drum and dance) and vocalizations (such as singing). I truly saw the patience and care required of music therapists, and how it is extremely rewarding when one is able to reach another through music. I was delighted to have been able to interact with the students as well. The music therapist asked if I could help hold a symbol in front of a student and match the symbol's position with the student's arm movements. I desperately wanted to reach him somehow, as the music therapy student and I encouraged him to hit the symbol through actions and  song. One wonderful moment was when one of the students started banging the drums, and the rest of us answered him by playing back his rhythm. It was amazing because he realized what we were doing, and his face lit up in understanding. He ended up getting so enthused about it that we had trouble getting him to calm down and stop!

Drum Circle: "Drumming increases antibody production"

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: Day 4
This evening at Spontaneous Celebrations, there was a drum circle jam with members of the community, and we joined in! It was a very fun and enriching experience for all of us. We learned the basic techniques of drumming (bass, slap, ?) and then went around soloing and playing various rhythms in synchrony. I could sense how close the group (many which had been to these weekly drum sessions for more than 14 sessions) was, and how they found support through drumming together. Drumming is a effective type of music therapy technique; our group has been drumming in some way or another every day since our trip started. And we've been constantly reminding ourselves, as we learned from Sarah Blacker, the music therapist we visited at Boston Medical Center the other day, that "drumming increases antibody production."

"An Apple and a Bicycle:" Adventures in Songwriting

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: Day 4
This afternoon, (after some deforestation and then salsa dancing with 7th graders!), a group of three of us visited Hannah Slater, a senior at Berklee majoring in music therapy, for a session of songwriting with a male student K. Sarah works with at-risk youth to help them to enrich their lives through music, as part of the nonprofit organization, Genuine Voices.

We went outside in the sunny Boston day and started freewriting about ourselves, and using metaphors to describe ourselves (brainstorming). Next, we went inside to put our ideas to song. Student K suggested the title of piece to be "An Apple and a Bicycle," based on the metaphor of apple and bicycle one of us used in the brainstorming process. Another metaphor we wanted to incorporate was the sea and storm. Eventually, our first few lines came out to be:
Sitting in a lonely rowboat,
Drifting out to sea...
By the end of the hour, we had come up with a complete verse, along with melody. Although we wanted to continue songwriting, we were out of time, so we decided to record ourselves! You can listen to our impromptu recording here.

I was very impressed by the talent and passion Student K showed for music, and I was deeply impressed by Hannah's ability to guide us through the song-writing process (it was her first time). Hannah showed genuine care and passion for what she does, and it shined through not only when she worked with us in songwriting, but also by just talking with her. It was a delight to have her join us for dinner. I'm very happy to have made a new friend in Hannah. Once again, it's amazing the wonders that music can do to bring people together and enrich lives.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Music in Medicine at MA General Hospital: Dr. Conrad

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: Day 3
After the music therapy session, we went to the Massachusetts General Hospital to visit Dr. Conrad, a surgeon and the Director of the Music in Medicine Research group . Here is a bit of background information about Dr. Conrad:
Claudius Conrad, Director of Music in Medicine of the Department of Surgery and the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, is well-known for his work understanding the role of music in modern medicine. He holds an MD, a doctoral degree in stem cell biology, and a doctoral degree in music philosophy from the University of Munich. He has been awarded several honors for his work, including the Excellence in Research Award, the Leadership Award of the American College of Surgeons, Steinway Artist, and many others. As a trained concert pianist and lecturer, he promotes the scientific use of music in medicine at prominent institutions around the globe.
Dr. Conrad gave us an informative lecture on his research on how listening to music (Mozart) helps performance (performing surgical procedures and motor control tasks). The results of his studies show that listening to Mozart decreases stress (by measuring stress indicators in the blood), and improves motor performance. In one study, subjects were asked to perform motor tasks, similar to surgical procedure tasks, in either a silent, dichotic music, mental loading, or Mozart condition. The results showed that subject's speed and accuracy in the tasks increased in the Mozart condition. Also, the blood samples taken from the participants showed that those in the Mozart condition had lower indicators of stress and that nurses (blind to the study) rated those subjects as more relaxed. See the paper, "The effect of defined auditory conditions versus mental loading on the laparoscopic motor skill performance of experts" published in Surgical Endoscopy, 2010.

What really astounds me is how Dr. Conrad is able to do such research, be a surgeon, and a touring concert pianist at the same time. He told us he attended medical school and a music conservatory at the same time!

For more on the music in medicine research Dr. Conrad does, check out this video: "Music in Medicine--Dr. Conrad"

Experiencing Music Therapy with Sarah Blackner

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: Day 3 
After visiting Dr. Seibel, we went to the Boston Medical Center (Integrative Medicine) to participate in a session of music therapy with Sarah Blacker. We were graciously welcomed into the music therapy circle, along with a group of around twenty patients dealing with cancer. Here is a little about Sarah Blacker and the sessions:
Board-Certified Music Therapist, Sarah Blacker, who is also a nationally touring and recording singer/songwriter, graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and who previously worked at BMC practicing inpatient Music Therapy for 2.5 years, will be providing the opportunity to sing your favorite songs, engage in drumming or playing instruments, and also to write your own original songs.
The session started off with Sarah going around the group singing as we all introduced our names through song, while playing on a small instrument we had chosen ourselves (i.e. maracas, guitars, drums, bells). I chose the drums (we had just been told by the doctor that drumming increases antibody production, so why not?). Next, she asked us all what music meant, and we came up with phrases like "music is happiness," "music is life," and "music is expression." Through using our phrases, Sarah helped us improvise a song. During our songs, people were given the opportunity to perform solos and express themselves. Two solos especially stuck out to me (besides the blues solo I ended up singing): an older man's solo and a young child's solo. The older man sang a long folk-like tune with purity and sincerity. It was beautiful and touching. The little boy, around six years old, shy and unwilling to sing at first, opened up and sang with a quiet determination. While listening, I felt a deep sense of empathy, a sense of understanding communicated by music, where words would have failed.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Dr. Seibel and Healthrock. The new Schoolhouse Rock...for medicine?

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: Day 3
This afternoon, we visited Dr. Seibel for a fun informal discussion at the Boston Medical Center. What a treat! He played us songs on his guitar from Healthrock, a creative music business he created similar to Schoolhouse Rock, except related to medicine and health education. Now here's a doctor who brings creativity and music to his motto of "It's better to stay well than to get well." Here's more about Dr. Seibel and Healthrock:
Dr. Seibel founded HealthRock® ( to make health education fun and easy to remember. His songs go in one ear...and Rock the other! As DocRock™ he leaves audiences smiling and singing his songs long after his presentations are over. He has written 12 musical CDs, the songs and lyrics to three musical comedies and has spoken at the US DHHS, the CDC and at professional meetings, schools and companies across the country. His motto is: “It’s better to stay well than to get well.” You can learn more about Dr. Seibel at
During our discussion, Dr. Seibel treated us to his very own performance of his own songs on the guitar, singing the lyrics with great energy along the way, ranging from Gospel to rap, on topics from colonoscopy and mammograms to healthy eating habits. It was such a delight seeing his enthusiasm and enjoyment as he performed. It certainly was contagious, and we enjoyed it very much! It was especially fun hearing his little improvised song to welcome us, along the lines of "greetings to students of Princeton University, thank you!" Well thank you, Dr. Seibel, for showing us the widespread powers of music to not just entertain, but to educate and heal. Well, Dr. Seibel asked for a testimonial so here's mine:

He left us college students with some parting words of wisdom:
"Try to think where you're going. It's important to know how you think in the long run. Explore, and then stick with your goal."

I'm inspired by Dr. Seibel's ability to bring his passion and creativity into his medical practice. In his words, I'm "sticking with my goal" to do so as well.

The Interfaith Arts Connection

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: Day 2
Last evening, we went to a workshop on music therapy by the Interfaith Arts Connection at Lesley University. Cobi, a masters candidate in music therapy at Lesley University, along with two of his colleagues, facilitated some very engaging activities. Our first activity was fun and wacky. We greeted each other using various parts of our body, such as the ears, nose, and feet! Another activity included a type of guided imagery to music, where one person, "the leader," would narrate his/her story (of faith) through movement as calm music was played in the background, and another person, "the follower," would mimic the movements. In another activity, each person chose their own instrument, and then played along with others in the group based on criteria such as instrument similarity and dissimilarity. Through the workshop, we were able to look at some techniques of music therapy while socially bonding as a group at the same time.

As an artistically synaptic sidenote, we went stilt walking yesterday at noon! You know, going on those high stilts like clowns do in parades? Well I still can't believe I managed to do that! Although a bit intimidating at first, it's amazing how quickly we can adapt and learn to walk on two sticks and be a couple of feet higher. By the end of half an hour, all eight of us were stilting like we were ready to go on a parade. Photos will be up by next week!

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Haydn, Bartok, and Beethoven

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: An Introduction
This begins the chronicles of "Boston Breakout: Music, Mind, and Medicine," a week-long spring break trip sponsored by the Princeton University Pace Center for Civic Engagement focused on learning about music therapy, music and medicine research, and volunteering to improve the community and lives of at-risk youth through the arts. After many months of busy planning, I'm so happy the trip is happening and going so well! I'll share here some snippets of the exciting things our group of eight students, ranging from English to Molecular Biology to Philosophy majors all with a deep love of music, are doing outside what we students call "the orange bubble."

Day 1: Boston Symphony Orchestra

On Saturday, we went to the renowned Boston Symphony Orchestra for a delightful concert of Haydn, Bartok, and Beethoven. The program featured Haydn's Symphony No. 93 in D, Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, conducted by Roberto Abbado, with Peter Serkin as pianist (both substitutions for James Levine and Maurizio Pollini, who were were both unfortunately ill). See the concert program and program notes here.

The concert was, of course, splendid. It was a wonderful blend of witty Classicism (Haydn), intricate Romanticism and virtuosity (Bartok), and finale classic (Beethoven 5). And, no less than expected, the Boston Symphony performed with classic ingenuity.

Which was my favorite piece? Well...I might give in and let the popular classic shine in it's glory for once. I must say the Allegro finale of Beethoven 5 left quite an impression on me. The sonority and shear power of the brass's entrance before the upward scalar run of the strings sent those wonderful chills through me. Bravo brass! That movement was my highlight of the concert. However, I thought Movement 1, Allegro con brio, with the famous fate theme (ba ba ba buuummm...) was a little too hurried for my taste, despite the nature of the movement. I would have liked to hear more silence, more 'breaths" between some phrases.

So I think I'll have to reconsider. I mean, the Haydn was really delightful, in the witty delight that Haydn is! And really, as a pianist myself, how could I not consider the Bartok? Peter Serkin played with technical brilliance and showmanship. However, as a critical pianist, I think his touch was a bit harsh, especially during the Adagio religioso (his wrists seemed high, and his shoulders and arms seemed somewhat stiff in general).

Though I may not have quite made up my mind on which piece was my favorite, I can certainly say this will be a concert that I will treasure forever! It's such an returning to the wonderful Boston Symphony Hall, and to share the experience with such a wonderful group of friends. It was a shame that James Levine was ill, but Roberto Abbado did a masterful job in his place.

Friday, March 4, 2011

3D Audio Craziness!

Well, in light of the dearth of posts, I must admit things have been pretty crazy for me lately. Certainly crazy in more ways than one, but here is kind of craziness you want to hear about, I promise!

Professor Edgar Chouieri, professor of Mechanical Engineering at Princeton, gave dinner discussion last Friday, Feb. 25, titled "3D Audio" as part of an art and science lecture series organized by the newly formed student group, Music in Mind. Here was the event description:
Lecture and Dinner brought to you by the Music in Mind (MiM) group:

An excerpt:
I’m about to hear a demonstration of Choueiri’s Pure Stereo filter, which promises “truly 3-D reproduction of a recorded soundfield.” Only a handful of people have heard his 3-D demo, but it’s already spawned awestruck hype, as well as preemptive rumblings of audiophile skepticism. -- Atlantic Monthly, March 2011.

So sure, that sounds pretty cool, but the lecture was way more than just cool! We actually got to hear 3D audio (if you're befuddled as to what 3D audio even means, bear with me for a while, or read the above article). Professor Chouieri brought in a small black rectangular device--one of those things that you might mistake for a pencil box--that played out sound in 3D. When I held black box (Chouieri's, not Tolman's) an arm's length away from my head, I heard bird sounds not only to the left and right of me (what regular speakers can do), but I could also hear a bird as if it were right next to my right ear, and another one just a little farther away, or another one a little behind me. I could hear actual depth in audio, and it was wonderfully uncanny. It was quite entertaining to see the looks of awe on everyone's faces (all 50 of us!) as the device was passed around the room.

You're wondering, how does this work? Well, the answer is surprisingly obvious--in the same way that 3D images work. (We witness here again how creativity and innovation arise from applying old concepts in new ways.) We see 3D images by eliminating cross-talk between the eyes. In the same way, we hear 3D sound by eliminating cross-talk between the ears. I'm being horribly vague, so please check out this video! It does a much better job at explaining this extremely fascinating stuff:


Professor Chouieri's going to California in a few weeks to talk with the movie makers. Imagine having 3D audio in the movie theatres, and then 3D audio TV, 3D audio CDs...! Professor Chouieri offered to show us his 3D Audio and Applied Acoustics Lab; we're working on organizing groups to visit for Music in Mind and perhaps even working with him on the creation of a 3D audio musical project. Crazy awesome!