Music as medicine – UCI News

A collaboration among UCI Health, the Claire Trevor School of the Arts and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County brought the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Strokestra program to UCI. The decade-old “music medicine” program helps stroke patients with their rehabilitation.

Conga drums thump, tambourines rattle and a trombone moans as Tim Steiner – wearing a black shirt emblazoned with cats and strawberries – conducts an unusual symphony inside a UCI hospital library.

Although most of the 30 musicians are rank amateurs – and eight are recovering from strokes or other ailments – the sound is surprisingly melodic.

It’s the West Coast debut of Strokestra, a decade-old “music medicine” program created by London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to help stroke victims regain movement, socialize and build confidence.

Music as medicine – UCI News
Dancing, joking and gesturing, workshop leader Tim Steiner guides a Strokestra session attended by UCI Health patients and caregivers, UCI music students and medical school faculty, and other guests. “I’m enjoying that we’re in a library and our task is to make a lot of noise,” he says.

Steve Zylius / UCI

“It’s amazing,” says Michelle Wulfestieg, 41, who had her first stroke as a child and another at age 25 that sent her into an eight-day coma and still hampers her mobility. “This is the first time in a long time that I’ve been encouraged to move my body and exercise with music and not feel self-conscious. … It made me happy and joyful.”

The two-hour workshop was a collaboration between the Royal Philharmonic – which ran the session – and UCI’s Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology, led by Dr. Lisa Gibbs. Seven music students from UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts also participated.

UCI Health is considering whether to adopt the program for stroke and/or dementia patients. “I’ve always been interested in the impact of music on health, particularly on brain health and aging,” says Gibbs, who earned a bachelor’s degree in music performance before switching to medicine, inspired by a jazz pianist who became a psychiatrist.

Noting that various studies have shown that music can benefit the mind and body, Gibbs says she was impressed by the demonstration at UCI Medical Center, in Orange, that took place last month as part of the London orchestra’s one-week residency with the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. (The Philharmonic Society suggested partnering with UCI on Strokestra and helped coordinate the event.)

“Patients were engaged and moving in ways they haven’t been in ages,” Gibbs says. “Next we’ll learn how to develop this program at UCI to benefit our patients.”

In England, workshop leader Steiner and a few Royal Philharmonic musicians meet and perform with patients, doctors and caregivers several times over a period of months, building toward a public concert at the end. Between workshops, stroke survivors are given homework assignments. “When you’re in the kitchen, bang some saucepans to music,” Steiner says.

Each group creates its own groove. At the UCI session, for example, patient Terry Taylor spontaneously began chanting “da da da da” in rhythm with the music and was quickly joined by Royal Philharmonic trombonist Rupert Whitehead and a couple of others. In turn, that prompted a UCI student cellist and violinist to twirl their instruments in unison after certain beats.

“This is not a fixed product,” Steiner says later. “It’s totally responsive to the people in the room.”

After setting down his guitar at the end of the performance, Ph.D. student Jonathan Gerrard says he would gladly volunteer for future Strokestra programs: “This has been one of the most meaningful musical experiences I’ve ever had.”

Cindy Garcia, who manages her mother’s care after the older woman experienced a series of ministrokes, saws away on a cello, an instrument she had never played before.
Cindy Garcia, who manages her mother’s care after the older woman experienced a series of ministrokes, saws away on a cello, an instrument she had never played before. “I really needed this,” she says, calling the musical exercise a great stress reliever.

Steve Zylius / UCI

Caregivers also praised the results. Cindy Garcia, who accompanied her stroke victim mother to the UCI workshop, wound up playing a cello for the first time – with abandon. “I believe in living life in technicolor and saying yes to every opportunity,” she says. The effect was cathartic, Garcia adds: “It’s very stressful managing my mother’s care; I really needed this.”