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Music Enters: Where Words Cannot Pass

By: Barry Bittman, MD
Category: Therapeutic
Population Served: Others

Perhaps it wasn't a good idea after all. They smiled and he didn't. They played and he didn't. The group gelled through a synchronized beat that resounded their strength and commitment to living life fully - without him.

The young man with cancer just sat with them-- obviously detached. The group understood. They knew him well. Each was facing cancer in one way or another; either as a patient or a support person in our Bernie Siegel Cancer Program. His stillness touched us that June afternoon with an emptiness out of sync with the rhythmical energy our leader magically imparted to us.

It wasn't an ordinary day at the Mind-Body Wellness Center, and our facilitator wasn't an ordinary drumming leader. On the surface, he was a guest presenter at a conference to be held the next day. Little did we know he was far more than that. For what we were about to learn changed each of us.

Our drummer didn't appear coincidently either, nor was he scheduled. On a whim, our counselor called him at his hotel and invited him to join us. Without hesitation and within minutes, he literally bounced through the door with bubbling exuberance that immediately broke the serenity of the Center. I suppose he was glad someone called. He claimed to have been writing an article for a national magazine all morning. Yet I had difficulty believing he could ever sit still for more than a few minutes.

For after announcing his presence (does a whirlwind ever need an announcement?), he literally stormed into the meeting room-- an open, airy setting where our group was arranged in a circle. A heartfelt discussion of rediscovering meaning and purpose in life was abruptly cut short by a man who couldn't contain his enthusiasm to get started. Without the slightest hesitation, he ran over to a collection of colorful Remo hand drums stacked neatly in the corner of the room. Frantically, he set to task placing, then rearranging them chaotically in front of each person. He scurried about without a break until all drums were in place-- obviously according to some order he alone had in mind.

We stared at each other in awe. After finally collapsing in a chair directly across from the young man, he took a deep breath, sighed loudly and looked up at us. After adjusting his strange little hat and rearranging his fisherman's vest, the drummer smiled ear to ear and nonchalantly asked, What is the problem you people have anyway?

Cancer, our counselor responded in a subdued tone.

Have you all recovered? he injected.

No, I replied. We're in the midst of an integrated, whole person treatment approach.

While that answer didn't seem to phase him for more than a fraction of a second, there was a noticeable pause and a gasp before he began a supercharged explanation of the history of drumming. Our group didn't seem to mind. In fact, we were all wondering what would happen next. It didn't take long to find out.

Within minutes, there was an upbeat resonance that emanated from a group of what he might have described as rhythmically challenged individuals. We were all beginners and everyone seemed to delight in participating-- except for the young man whose cancer paralyzed his painful right arm which was held close to his body in a makeshift sling. Despite a bit of lighthearted coaxing by our earnest drumming guru, a nod followed by a telltale stare at the floor revealed the young man's sentiment that was understood and accepted by everyone in the room.

While the group played on, deep inside, I wished he'd join in. I offered him a shaker, a wooden gourd with seeds inside from an assortment of oddly-shaped tools in our arsenal of percussion instruments. He gently waved me off as his young wife continued tapping her drum and nodded thanks with a bittersweet smile-- one that fully conveyed their melancholy plight without a single word. Within minutes our ragtag group of former pencil tappers and knee slappers actually sounded like we'd done this before. And as our leader, bigger than life, rose from his chair and signaled us for an intensive drum roll finale, our hearts, souls and enthusiasm energized each other and connected us. That crescendo boomed throughout the Center shaking the walls and the windows.

We had become one sound at one moment in time resounding past challenge, past adversity and past cancer. Yet it didn't seem to connect with the spirit of a young man who perhaps needed it the most. More than ever, while I wished he'd play with us, I fully realized it had to be his choice. As our drum beats were replaced with smiles and applause for our collective sonic boom, my eyes connected with his and the pain of his suffering. I knew the seriousness of his condition and recognized the despair he felt, as well as the courage it took just to sit with us.

Before I could inject a word, there was an unexpected metamorphosis in our drumming facilitator. Unpredictably and out of character, he began to speak calmly and deliberately in a soothing tone that contrasted so sharply with the wild exhilaration we just experienced. He seemed to know something we didn't-- something hidden in a story about the first drum beat each of us had ever heard-- the lub-dub of mother's heart. And he taught us to re-create it with those amazing, yet simple instruments that minutes before brought us together with incredible resolve, energy and camaraderie.

As we played in unison, his gentle words took us back generations to grandmother's and great grandmother's heartbeat. He guided us back through time to a place where that sound was first heard-- a place where true balance and harmony existed within each one of us. It was a place where even the threat of cancer could not exist. As his words progressively faded and the only sounds filling the room were the lub-dubs on our drums, something wonderful happened.

Glancing at our teacher as if on cue, we sensed it, we felt it and we heard it. There was a new drum beat amongst ours, and it was perfectly synchronized with the lub-dub of our hands and our hearts. Each of us nodded, sighed and welcomed back the young man whose left hand tapped the drum in front of him in synchrony with ours-- an acceptance of the healing connection each one of us extended.

That June day the young man taught us something we will never forget-- music enters where words cannot pass. While our rhythmical alchemist, as he sometimes refers to himself, doesn't like to admit it, he's really a talented therapist disguised as a drummer.

Arthur Hull's real magic is in the energy of the music he teaches us to express-- a symphony of souls that draws us together in mind, body and spirit. As for that brave young man, I'm confident he will never have to drum again with just one hand. For every time a new group of rhythmically challenged individuals seeks to synergize their souls at our Center, I sense the vibrations of both his hands leading us-- Mind Over Matter!

This article is dedicated to Todd Burrows, whose memory lives on in the heartbeat of every soul he touched.

Copyright 1998,1999, 2000 Barry Bittman, MD all rights reserved.

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