March 2023

Dancing With Strangers

Midway through the month of March, I plan to do something that scares me. I will step onstage as a member of a band that is playing for the bulk of the night at an Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day. Our band, Whiskey Jacks is the last act of the evening and will close the place down. That will mean five hours of energetic music, with two breaks.  In addition to remembering my cues and parts, I will have additional responsibilities, including not falling off stage and not peeing in my pants while picking the mandolin. All while staying up way past my bedtime.

Why would I expose myself to such risks? Why subject myself to the stress of performance with the complications of Parkinson’s disease thrown on top? Not to mention hazardous duty: exposure to bagpipes, which aren’t even Irish, but are sure to show up in deafening array, bleating like wounded tyrannosaurs at top volume in an enclosed space.

Why? Because life doesn’t end with Parkinson’s, it just gets more complicated. Risks are inevitable. And making music is a risk with big payoffs for those of us with Parkinson’s Disease. Not that you can simply continue as if PD doesn’t matter. I have made concessions to the disease to stay viable with the band. There are certain techniques that are beyond me now, so I look for other ways to structure my parts. This, in itself, is a good mental exercise, keeping the brain on its toes. (sorry) 

Music is a great stimulator of the brain. It is an activity that engages both sides of the brain simultaneously. According to neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, author of Musicophilia, musician is the only trade identifiable by examining a subject’s brain structure. Musicians can be identified by an especially robust corpus callosum, the part of the rain centered between the left and right sides, mediating, and coordinating communication between the two hemispheres. Music is an activity that uniquely exercises the analytical and emotional sides of the mind at once.

But the best thing about music for a person with Parkinson’s may be the social interaction involvement with music brings. Sure, you can make music by yourself, alone in your bedroom.  And that can be rewarding. But music really gets satisfying when you play it with others. The give and take of figuring out when to play and when not to play requires listening to what your band mates are doing and responding appropriately. When you play in a group you are part of a larger organism brought to life by the cooperative efforts of individuals that are paying extraordinary attention to one another.

Along with this high level of interaction among band members, toss in an audience and you have social interaction squared, as a current runs from the crowd to the performers and back. This is a powerful affirmation of the interconnection of humanity. Want proof? Ask a Deadhead, one of those hard-core fans of the Grateful Dead, who literally and figuratively followed the band for years. 

It’s a wonderful feeling to look out on a dance floor to see a bunch of strangers shake to the rhythm you are pounding out. It’s even better when their dancing makes the floor bounce along in time. If socializing is good for people with Parkinson’s, and it is, this has to be the ultimate form of interconnection. That can only be good for Parkinson’s patients. And besides, it’s fun.

Oh, and one more thing. Musical performance is that rare activity where dyskinesia looks normal. I fit right in with the rest of the band, writhing along to the beat, and making “guitar faces” with wild abandon. 

“It is the work of the creative to be a prosthetic imagination for the distracted and the dull.”
-Maxwell Hubert Maxwell, playwright, butterfly collector, amateur surgeon, and snob.

by Peter Dunlap-Shohl
NW Parkinson’s Blogger