Ever since he was a child, Cam Brown wanted to learn how to play his grandfather’s violin. He promised himself, once he retired, he would.
“I’d started and two years into it, Parkinson’s got a hold of me and I couldn’t play anymore.”
For five years, the symptoms of the disease – rigidity and tremors – made it impossible for him to play the instrument. Then, he heard about a program being offered at the Winspear Centre.
“They said they were having a program with mentors from the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (ESO) to help people that have Parkinson’s and I jumped at the chance,” Brown said.
The program was supposed to be five weeks, but has been extended into the new year. It’s funded by donations to Parkinson Alberta.
“It’s been great,” Brown said. “Absolutely fantastic.”
He says he looks forward to playing alongside such talented musicians.
“It’s awe inspiring. They play so well and I wish I could be up to their calibre which I never will be. But I’ll be happy if I could just play a simple song, when I pick up the violin and it sounds like the violin, that’s what I’m striving for,” Brown said with a smile.
“Some days, I even forget I have Parkinson’s.”
Meanwhile, the organizers and ESO musicians say they’re also reaping the rewards of this partnership.
“It’s broadened our world,” Alison Kenny-Gardhouse, director of Musical Creativity at the Francis Winspear Centre for Music, said.
“We feel like we have learned so much about what the challenge of living with Parkinson’s is like and have really tremendous respect for every day a person with Parkinson’s is faced with – things that make simple things very hard to do.”
Kenny-Gardhouse thinks the experience is validating for both professional and amateur musicians.
“We’re seeing people who haven’t played instruments in a long time getting back, picking up their instruments, being able to get sound out of them and then, with the expert instruction of the ESO musician, it’s giving them confidence to try things they haven’t done in a long time. It’s been really great to see.”
Brown, 63, says practising and playing the violin has also helped him manage his disease – physically and mentally.
Science supports that belief, Kenny-Gardhouse says.
“We absolutely think that music has a healing capacity.
“That can be spiritual, emotional healing as well as physical. We know a little bit from the research that’s being done on Parkinson’s that the beat and rhythm of music is something that can actually help a person’s gait be more smooth. We know when they play an instrument they’re in motion so the tremours, oftentimes, will stop.”
Brown admits his musical journey is a work in progress, but one he’s happy to take on.
“It’s something to really look forward to every day.”