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

Categories: classical

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?"

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