Two Hands to Health

July 16th, 2015 by Richard Burman

I would like to introduce a short documentary I just completed. Tammy the Tumour was originally intended as a story about Maureen Steenhill and how playing the piano helped in her recovery from two major brain operations. It turns out other important factors also played a role in her healing.

There is something special about playing the piano in terms of the effect on the brain. Making music is in itself a healing activity. What piano has in addition is that very complex use of two hands acting independent of each other. The only other activity like that I can think of is juggling. There were two complementary studies; one in 2003 from University of Regensburg and another from Oxford University in 2009 that showed an increase in the size of the brain after learning to juggle. There are definite parallels to piano playing from what I have been reading.

Dr. Tara Gaertner is both a neuroscientist and a piano teacher. She writes a blog called Training the Musical Brain. I found in one of her postings called Hands Together some good points about whether the tradition of practicing new piano pieces using hands-separately is as effective as practicing with both hands at the same time. Apparently when we play with our left hand, our right motor cortex not only sends motor commands to our left hand, but it also sends commands to the left motor cortex, telling it not to move the right hand. And vice versa when we play with our right hand. Interhemispheric inhibition is an important mechanism to maximize the independent functioning of each hemisphere. But if we don’t practice with both hands those inhibiting signals will simply inhibit us a little too much.

Maureen has a brain that’s experienced 20 years of a growing tumour pressing on it, a second tumour, two operations and treatments of radiation. She is convinced that all this interhemispheric communication going on at the piano is helping her short term memory. I believe her and for myself who neither juggles or plays piano I have at least my french horn and DIY projects. I don’t need an MRI to tell me how these activities are keeping me healthy. If you have any personal experience or expertise on this subject please feel free to add your comments or insights below.

Maureen was treated at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital. Her first operation to remove a meningioma brain tumour was July 2013. In April 2014 she had a second operation when a smaller tumour was removed. Following that she received radiation treatments. Maureen is grateful to the team at The Neuro especially her doctor and surgeon Dr. Jeffery Hall.

8 Responses to Two Hands to Health

  1. Jana Stuart says:

    Lovely story! Thanks for doing this documentary. Very touching. Maureen I love your piano playing. I would love to hear you sometime.

  2. Catherine Paquet says:

    Hi
    I am Maureen’s Mom. Maureen always had an amazing aptitude for music. I am especially happy, given what she has been through, that she is playing the piano. She plays with her Dad in the church to lead the congregational singing and is really good.
    I’m reading a book called Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks. Music is so much part of our human journey.
    Thanks for this movie. It makes me cry which is a good thing. When you go through something like this, the emotions are so strong that you tend to bury them. So thank you for helping me to face them.
    Cathy

  3. Chris Crilly says:

    Maureen, You have the hands and ear of a musician. Whatever you do, keep playing.
    All the best to you,
    Chris

  4. Brigitte says:

    Mo has been my friend since elementary school, she has always been a survivor and a person you want to know and be around.

    • Nathalie says:

      I too have know Maureen since elementary school. She is an inspiration to those all around her.
      Love you, Mo!
      So proud of you.

  5. Terri Burman says:

    Very moving and informative film, Richard.

  6. Christine Bouchard says:

    Hello Mrs Steenhill,
    Very touching story and your piano playing is lovely! I envy people who can play music as I have no artist side!:) Your music is southing and gentle, most likely just like you!
    Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to meet you and get to know you, as when you were admitted on my unit post surgery, I was away. I have had mostly email exchanges between you and your mother…I can now put a face to this generous person who donated for our team, which was sooo greatly appreciated!…I sincerely hope I’ll have the chance one day to see you and we sure wish you all the best!!
    From the 4Surgery nursing team unit
    Christine Bouchard, Nurse manager

    • Maureen Steenhill says:

      Hi Christine,

      Yes, I recognize your name from the email exchanges. The donation was raised by the Facebook page called GoTeamMo (https://www.facebook.com/SupportTeamMo). It was created by my close friends when we got the news that I’d be going back for a second round of surgery to remove the smaller tumour. I’m happy to hear the money raised is going to good use. I was in awe of the nurses at the Neuro, you guys are amazing!!! I’m still in touch with Roberta Dsouza. Thanks for the good wishes, so far so good. I met Dr. Hall 2 weeks ago to get the good news from the last MRI. Still free and clear :) )) I know I’ll always be in good hands at the Neuro.

      Maureen

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