Doctor’s music for the heart

A cardiologist who complements his patients’ treatment with music therapy, Thanassis Dritsas is a devoted believer in his blend of science and art. «Keep a door open to your dreams,» Dritsas, one of the country’s leading music therapists, says. «I’m repelled by absolute realism, or the need for us to be pragmatists, or totally square, with material concern being the most important thing behind whatever we do. The only ones that will survive are those that keep a door open for escape.» The practicing doctor, who has written on music therapy and performed compositions of his own publically, including at the Athens Concert Hall, spoke to K. So, for what kind of conditions can an art form be a better remedy than science? But music is also a science. Those of us involved in music therapy go back to the roots of medicine. Body and soul are not distinct, as is supported by Cartesian logic. They are related fields. Whatever helps the soul also helps the body. Stress, this era’s major disease in the Western world, begins from parts of the soul and spreads to the body. And, conversely, all body-related problems have repercussions on the soul. The listening sessions we offer bedridden patients in intensive care function as a form of anesthetic to confront stress or relieve pain. And it leads to results that can be measured objectively, like reduction in blood pressure or heartbeat. What kind of music is suitable for an individual confined to a bed of pain? It goes without saying that one cannot relax by listening to heavy metal. We usually consider instrumental themes as appropriate types of music; not songs, because their lyrics could possibly strike certain emotional chords and ultimately alarm the patient by reminding them of unpleasant experiences. But, going beyond this more general approach, there is no specific prescription. It’s a matter of preference. For example, the sound of a flute or clarinet could be more therapeutic than Mozart for a shepherd who has come in from an isolated mountain village. What do international trends indicate? There’s a growing number of publications based on the therapeutic qualities of Mozart’s music. Harpists and flutists play for patients at their bedsides, even in intensive care, at US hospitals. I suppose I can assume that this concept is like science fiction in Greece. It’s a shame, because ancient Greek philosophers had made inroads… I began by playing guitar, then I took on piano, and followed up with musical theory… I’ve been writing music since I was 8. What was the first record you bought? «Magnus Eroticus» by Manos Hadjidakis. The music I compose is inevitably influenced by the mood of this album, which I consider to be in the league of Schubert’s «Lieder.» Hadjidakis found the ideal combination of words and music. He was a wise man amid Greek reality. How did medicine win you over professionally? I never looked at music as something from which I could make a living, despite the fact that I have played professionally. I even worked at a piano bar when I was a student. Music and I share a sacred relationship. We’ll always be together, but there will never be any exploitation from either side. Music, of course, has helped me a great deal. The work of a doctor constantly revolves around death and music functions as an antidote, or a way for me to interpret the things I experience at hospitals in a poetic language in order to remain balanced. I underline, however, that I don’t consider music to be entertainment… or something that makes you unwind and lose focus. What kind of music do you compose? Lately, I’ve been writing music for fairty tales to accompany their readings. I consider it unacceptable for parents not to read fairty tales to their children – far from the work of the image. What I mean by that is that if you see «Peter Pan» as it was made by Walt Disney, you’re left with its imagery for the rest of your life. The imagination here ceases to exist. How do your colleagues take your other side? I don’t expect all of them to understand… In the past, doctors were backed by a wider, all-round education. Nowadays there’s a tendency for extreme specialization. Most of my colleagues have lost the ability to communicate. The most basic therapeutic gesture is the handshake. Many doctors don’t even offer this. They take notes and don’t even look the patient in the eye. All forms of therapeutic art are aimed at trying to reinstate lost communication. Now, allow me to address myself to the cardiologist. What is the heart’s biggest hazard? Stress and junk food – and the two are interconnected. Individuals under constant stress prefer food that is high in sugar and carbohydrates. They seek joy in unhealthy food. One needs to be psychologically balanced to be able to eat nutritiously. You see, prosperity hasn’t improved living conditions. Depression is the number one disease in Western world societies. Heart conditions and cancer are on the rampage. Our DNA, or the components from which we’re made of, is also very important. Winston Churchill said, «I’ve been eating, drinking and smoking all my life and I continue to go to the funerals of friends who followed their doctor’s advice.» Do you ever find yourself feeling trapped beneath your medical attire? It’s a symbol of power. But I try not to use it this way. I prefer to talk to my patients without the medical excesses. But, in Greece, most individuals want to see the signs of rank, and they adore the word professor… «I consulted a professor,» they say, directly linking rank with quality. What’s your prescription for heavy hearts? I’ll cite advice offered to me by a monk on Mount Athos several years ago. «In your life, you must have both an interest that you treat with utter reverence and a more practical one, too.» I’ll add a few more prerequisites for personal balance: One should enjoy the love of a family; have real friends, not ones based on convenience; one should not find in oneself things he or she has criticized in others; and, one should be generous – big flashy cars and swimming pools aren’t the objective in life. (Information on Thanassis Dritsas can be found at www. cardiacmusic. gr.) This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s color supple-ment, K, on August 5, 2007.