Noon Series Talk in Walter Hall UofT featuring Dr. Concetta M. Tomaino, D.A., MT-BC, LCAT on Thursday November 8, 2012
Lecture: “The Real Experience Behind Oliver Sacks’ Stories”
Dr. Tomaino’s background educational experience is in biology with a pre-med goal and it quickly turned into musical inspiration to study the trumpet. This passion for music and her scientific mind married into the notable research and frontline work she has done with patients of various illnesses’ reaching palliative care units. Dr. Tomaino began her work at Beth Abraham in the 1980’s as a music therapist who worked alongside Dr. Sacks, bringing him patients, with whom she made music with singing and accordion. At the time, Dr. Tomaino states the words music and therapy were not said together. She formed relationships with many patients created new research findings noting the transformation and stimulation that music brought to the otherwise catatonic patients. Dr. Sacks journalized these findings into his bestseller book “Awakenings”. This was the beginning of a new era when the great mystery of music was realized to transform, awaken, arouse, stimulate and restore vitality in humankind.
Dr. Tomaino reminisced that most patients with dementia were placed in the back of the ward, tube-fed, overly medicated and had to wear mittens on their hands tied to the wheelchairs so that they didn’t hurt themselves. Her job was to offer music therapy to relax, comfort and engage her patients. Three patients that represent her exemplary work during this time: Bessie, Charles and Gabe.
Bessie had suffered multiple strokes loosing her short-term memory leaving her with amnesia and dementia although she showed signs of being able to connect and converse with others. During her therapy sessions, she spoke of memories working as a high-end seamstress and being a contemporary to Ella Fitzgerald and, in fact, she believed she was still working as she said, “I am determined to go into show business.” Dr. Tamaino saw Bessie once a week for two years and Bessie responded very positively to singing, remembering all of the words and singing in great tone and pitch. The power of music therapy stimulated Bessie’s pleasure arousal and activated her long-term memories.
The second patient, Charles suffered from dementia, severe arthritis and balance issues and as Dr. Tamaino played her accordion he swung out of his wheelchair, and shockingly danced as long as the music was playing. During this time, he remembers dancing at the Savoy Club in NY. This patient suffered from frontal lobe damage hindering him from social interaction. As the music therapy continued Dr. Tamaino concludes that his procedural memory of habitual, daily actions were activated and through the auditory connections through the basal ganglia and cerebellum his motor function improved also improving social interaction.
The third patient, Gabe was a young man who was blind and after removing a tumor he lost memory, and forgot he was blind and he thought he could still see. The music therapy animated Gabe, engaged him to think back to long-term memories of owning a collection of albums. Surprisingly, he could remember the track names, musicians and album names that he used to own.
Dr. Tomaino speaks of Dr. Sacks' compassion to understand, interact and help his patients beyond a prescribed level. She told a story of how began to dance with his patients and treat them with utmost respect and dignity. He holds a true integral humanitarian approach to this research and he possesses articulate skills for journalizing his findings. While reflecting on Dr. Sacks during her talk Dr. Tomaino states “life is more than the body we are in- we contain a soul and human spirit which can be tapped into through music.” This honors my truth as a musician and teacher of music.
Although Dr. Sacks felt discouraged after writing “Awakenings” for the field of music therapy was in beginning stages of development, his colleagues encouraged him to continue researching the neurological functions of music therapy. Today, Dr. Sacks has written twelve books some being bestsellers such as Musicophilia, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and The Mind’s Eye.
The field of music therapy is at a peak of connecting neuroscience to music therapy and creating medicine, therapies and care for people that suffer from any sort of condition ranging from stroke, amnesia, and dementia to speech rehabilitation. Music therapy has gone through decades of ridicule and, as of recently over the past ten years, is surfacing as an effective way to re-unite patients who have lost their sense of self, personality or engagement. There is nothing more powerful than seeing an otherwise catatonic person reawaken to the sounds around them. The auditory connections through the basal ganglia and cerebellum offer scientist a gateway into the healing process of these patients. Neuroscience research is beginning to answer burning questions of why music is so important. Through music therapy the mystique of music, its power and spirit evident in humankind, will prosper to enliven but also heal the sufferers of so many ailments that plague people. As we move on, our health issues continue to diversify and our solutions become simpler. The power of sound is proving to be a spirit within all of us that we cannot deny. Our population of baby boomers grows older and the medicine evident in music research is available in a timely manner. Music therapy and neuroscience can marry to inform and assist in our global awakening to show us what we always thought is true: music heals, transforms, awakens, transfixes and lives in all of us.