Beat NF Program Highlighted in JazzTimes
This article, written by Jeff Tamarkin, originally appeared in JazzTimes on March 24, 2016.
The sight of a group of children dancing happily to live music never gets old. And when those kids have been diagnosed with a genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), and exposure to jazz has proven to have a positive factor in their therapy, the joy factor skyrockets. NF1, which can cause a litany of problems, affects one in 2,500 to 3,000 people of all ages—it’s more common than muscular dystrophy. In young children, it can lead to numerous medical, motor and learning issues, as well as problems with socialization. Traditional therapies can help, but for many kids, they’re not enough.
That’s where Dr. David Gutmann comes in. A professor of neurology and director of the Washington University Neurofibromatosis (NF) Center in St. Louis, Mo., Dr. Gutmann and his team, in tandem with St. Louis Children’s Hospital and Jazz St. Louis, two years ago created Beat NF, a therapy program that uses live jazz to treat toddlers with NF1, for which there is no known cure as yet.
“We noticed that kids that have NF1 require a multidisciplinary approach,” he says, “and we needed to bring a number of different ideas and approaches to bear. The reason that we decided to use jazz is that the beat established in jazz provides a framework for us to begin to address movement and timing and attention, things that are really problematic for these young kids. The live interaction helps them make connections. It provides visual cues and a more interactive experience.”
Why jazz? “Jazz and medicine share a bunch of common principles,” Dr. Gutmann says. “One is improvisation and the other is collaboration. What we do all the time with our kids, particularly our young kids, is try to solve medical problems with information and tools that are immediately at hand, as you try to do when you’re onstage improvising. We don’t always have all the information. We don’t always have the most advanced tools at any one time. We have what we have and we apply that to the situations that we’re dealing with.”
The toddlers, of course, do not know they are hearing jazz played by area pro musicians. For them it’s just fun to respond to music, which is always performed live, never in recorded form. But for many of the children, it’s their first exposure to live music of any kind, and thus the therapeutic process also becomes a teaching moment. They even get to join in. “They’re mesmerized,” says Dr. Gutmann. “And the inclusion of [specialized educational] instruments, where you actually can’t play a wrong note, allows them to become further engaged. It’s the same sort of feedback that we get in a live jazz concert. You get to see how the music is made, how the fingering of the piano actually produces music, what’s happening with the innards of the piano. The kids are fascinated by that.”
Dr. Gutmann says that the program, which uses “kid-friendly jazz, nothing too extreme,” has produced measurable results. “The more you activate parts of the brain, the more the kids become functional and new connections are made. It could be healing in that respect.” Jazz, with its pronounced rhythms, seems to have a more noticeable effect than other genres of music. “We can vary the music in terms of speed and tailor it to just the right challenge for these kids,” he says.
He hopes to expand the program within St. Louis at first, but eventually it could be used in other locations, and could possibly be applied to other conditions, including cerebral palsy and autism.