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Concert hall in each hospital? Why not?

/ 02:12 AM March 12, 2016

Last March 4 at the Philippine General Hospital, I experienced how music helps transform cancer patients. For an hour or so of their lives, they were happily oblivious to their condition, their pain, their fear, as they got into the rhythm. They gently tapped their feet and swayed their heads with every beat. Their spirits appeared to soar with every crescendo. They hummed familiar melodic strains. They clapped in unrestrained delight, joy apparently filling their hearts.

During those fleeting moments, cancer was far from their minds. Music was all that mattered.

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All this happened during a free live performance by the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of the debonair Maestro Olivier Ochanine. The audience was made up of cancer patients, many of whom were children, and the PGH healthcare staff. Two years ago, I facilitated a similar concert during Valentine month as a project of Sining Sigla, which I head, in coordination with the Philippine Cancer Society. In that concert, the young cancer patients were so moved and so appreciative that the organizers and the PPO vowed to do a reprise in the future. And so, last March 4, orchestral music echoed once more within the PGH halls, the kind of music that is usually heard only at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

As my spirit soared, too, I was thinking: We should make this free concert an annual Valentine treat for PGH cancer patients! And why stop with PGH?

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I, for one, strongly believe that there is more to music than meets the ears, in a manner of speaking. As the cliché goes, “music soothes the savage breast.” Nietzsche thought music so important that he declared: “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

But the cynic will probably say this is just poetic hogwash.

On the other hand, who can argue with Boethius who described music as “so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired”? Music seems to be wired in every human being from birth. Isn’t it a fact that we wake up, eat, work, commute, and go to sleep to the sound of music? Don’t we all graduate to music (usually to the cadence of Verdi’s march), fall in love to music, marry to music, mourn and console each other to music? We even sing when we worship. In many surveys, music is consistently ranked as humanity’s supreme source of pleasure. Based on archeological findings of flutes carved from bones, music goes as far back as prehistoric times. Some even dare to say that music is older than language and that human speech evolved from music. We’re so attuned to music that it’s almost as if it’s part of our DNA.

Consider the power of music to change history. It has been written that music helped Thomas Jefferson write the US Declaration of Independence. He played the violin when he had a hard time coming up with the right wording. Speaking of violin, Einstein himself said the reason he was so smart was he played the violin. He also used to listen to the music of Mozart and Bach. Come to think of it, could he have thought of the theory of relativity without music? And I dare think that the sense of “patria amor” in Rizal, Bonifacio and Mabini must have been engendered by their love of music, too.

Unlike poetry and literature which rely on words to inspire an emotion, music does not have to pass through the intellect but goes right to our emotions. This is why music can be a very powerful tool to change and shape the world—and unite people. When we hear the Philippine national anthem sung, doesn’t it fill us with fervent patriotism, specially when we hear it played in a foreign land such as during a sports event? During the days before and leading to the 1986 Edsa revolution, it was the song “Bayan Ko” that helped unite us all as one people. No wonder Napoleon was heard to say: “Give me control over he who shapes the music of a nation, and I care not who makes the laws.” He astutely understood the enormous emotional power of music.

But from the way the PPO’s music moved the cancer patients during the concert at PGH, I think we need to explore and even harness the healing power of music. Ancients intuitively used music to soothe and heal the soul, from the strumming of ancient harps and flutes to the pure voices that chant and sing folk songs. Now researchers are providing scientific proof of how music therapy can improve the health condition of various patients, including premature infants and people suffering from depression and Parkinson’s disease.

Our body’s primordial sensitivity to music is the key to unlock its healing power. Different neurons respond according to what kind of music is playing. Music can affect hormones, encourage the production of cortisol, testosterone and oxytocin. Music can even trigger a release of endorphins, the so called “happy” hormones.

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A doctor at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore used high-tech imaging to measure the blood vessel size of his patients while listening to music. What he found was that the lining of the blood vessels relaxed and opened up. Music also produced chemicals that help protect the heart. It’s definitely been shown that music can make a positive impact on people suffering from early-onset dementia, kids with autism, and war veterans who are coming back and trying to learn to walk without a limb.

Now getting more attention due to its role in helping people recover from illness is a new field of medicine called music therapy. An organization called the Center for Music National Service is expanding the use of music in medical therapy. Brand-new research has revealed that music therapy helps hasten physical healing for surgical patients. One recent scientific paper out of Harvard shows that music therapy can help stroke patients regain speech. And other studies have found that music may improve heart and respiratory rates and blood pressure, as well as ease anxiety and pain in cancer and leukemia patients.

In its issue of March 1, 2015, The Scientific American Mind magazine published an article titled “Music Can Heal the Brain,” which cited new therapies that use rhythm, beat and melody to help patients recover language, hearing, motion and emotion.

With all these new developments, there is no denying the healing power of music, whether we can explain it or not.

I would like to see the day when every hospital has a concert hall where a symphony orchestra can perform live for a gathering of patients. Imagine the enormous healing force of the communal vibrations triggered by such live orchestral music. I dream of these things and I say: Why not?

Nick J. Lizaso is a multiawarded stage, television and film actor and director. He currently sits as a member of the board of trustees of the Cultural Center of the Philippines and serves as a member of the executive committee of the International University Theater Association based in Liege, Belgium.

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TAGS: Cancer, Music, Philippine General Hospital, Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, treatment
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