Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Archive for the ‘music and the mind’ Category

Oliver Sacks

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on September 1, 2015


Oliver Sacks, a UCLA trained neurologist, famous for his “stealing” a patient from the hospital to take her on a joy ride on his motorcycle, to give her some pleasure in the midst of a devastating illness. He promoted the human mind as a complex entity which can only be studied by listening to the narrative, the construction of a story, as a window into the brain. Inspiring. He listened and he wrote and then he listened more intensely in order to understand and to share the inconsistencies of the human mind. He reminds me why I am board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, as our fields merge in their passion for understanding the human nervous system. Today, of course, neurology is dominated by intense imaging studies which reveal more than we ever thought possible. Although that technology is immensely valuable to those who have mysterious neurological conditions, it does not, or should not, replace the need to listen to the patient’s narrative as a way of understanding their struggles. Oliver Sacks reminded us of this through his personal journey and through his eloquent writings. He shared with us that curiosity was a good first step to examining the brain. He is my hero.



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Piano Lessons/Psychotherapy: Striking Similarities

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on April 8, 2013


In this week’s New Yorker, Jeremy Denk writes about his piano teachers, as he also talks about in the video above. He talks about his teachers changing his life, enabling him to hold on to paradoxical advice. One teacher tells him to follow his intuition, whereas another tells him to pay attention to detail. Holding on to these notions is the challenge of creating great music, he says. So, working with the emotional interior requires working with  the same contradiction. One must learn to be free to fantasize, while at the same time, maintain the responsibility and regimentation of a civilized society. What struck me most about this article was how his mentors shaped him,but also humiliated him,  in ways which he struggles to describe, in a parallel fashion to psychotherapists who try to understand their patients, while at the same time, not shame them. Once again the relationship, the attachment, the respect, creates personal and professional growth. Although these connections often cause great inner turmoil, they also create a lasting impression of loving advice and guidance. Music is the window into the soul, so it makes sense that learning music and going to psychotherapy are strikingly similar activities.

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Mind Music

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on April 18, 2012

Richard Kogan MD, a psychiatrist, Julliard-trained pianist, helped fundraise for PER (see above link), by describing how Beethoven’s inner landscape contributed to his composition. In the above YouTube we see him playing Tchaikovsky, but we saw him playing Beethoven. We learned that his alcoholic father might have made Ludwig feel unloved, and hence unloveable, perhaps explaining why Beethoven never had a serious relationship. With such painful loneliness he composed music which seemed to correspond to his mood during that period in his life. Yet, the most fascinating part of the evening was when Dr. Kogan spoke of his own personal challenge of going from playing Beethoven to describing Beethoven. The transition between being immersed in the mind to being immersed in the music was something that Dr. Kogan had to work at. That amazed me given his talent for music, along with his medical credentials. Some people amaze. Beethoven and Kogan are both such people.

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