This article is part of Jmore’s “Innovation in Health Care” special section.

Five years ago, while being interviewed for his current position, Dr. Alexander Pantelyat was asked by Dr. Justin McArthur, director of the neurology department at Johns Hopkins Medicine, to describe his dream job.

“I said I’d like to combine my passion for music with my passion for medicine,” recalls Dr. Pantelyat, an accomplished violinist who first began studying the instrument at age 7 in his native Ukraine. “I would be playing the violin professionally now if not for medicine. It’s a big part of my life, as a stress reducer and a life enhancer. That’s why I love what I do, because it combines my two great passions.”

Besides serving as an assistant professor of neurology and director of the Atypical Parkinsonism Center at Hopkins, Dr. Pantelyat is a catalyst behind the trailblazing Johns Hopkins Center for Music & Medicine. 

A trained violinist, Johns Hopkins Medicine neurologist Dr. Alexander Pantelyat says he helped create the Center for Music & Medicine “because it combines my two great passions.” (Provided photo)

A joint effort of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, the “virtual center” provides cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary clinical care for professional musicians. The CMM also conducts research on music-based activities for non-musicians suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, stroke and epilepsy, in addition to non-neurological conditions.

The CMM’s team — comprising more than 80 faculty members from 20 different Hopkins and Peabody departments — includes physicians, nurses, educators, musicians, music therapists, physical, occupational and speech therapists, and practitioners of complementary and integrative medicine.

Founded in 2015 as an umbrella initiative, the CMM is led by Dr. Pantelyat; Dr. Sarah Hoover, Peabody’s associate dean for innovation, interdisciplinary partnerships and community initiatives; and Dr. Serap Bastepe-Gray, a guitar artist faculty member, injury prevention and wellness program director at Peabody.

“We’re trying to repair the culture of ‘no pain, no gain,’” Dr. Pantelyat says. “That’s the wrong approach.”

At Peabody, the CMM operates an outpatient clinic for musicians, faculty, students and performing artists to be assessed, triaged and educated about performance- and rehearsal-related injuries, as well as to receive muscular-skeletal screenings. “This is an opportunity to get some good care for our musicians,” says Dr. Hoover.

Peabody’s CMM also offers online coursework for injury prevention and the “Peak Performance Fundamentals” orientation program to help incoming Peabody students identify issues concerning health and the performing arts. “It’s about things to keep you at the top of your game and give you the resources for healthy practice habits and talking about health care for performing arts,” says Dr. Hoover.

“What we want to do is use the power of music and experiences to engage people”

Dr. Sarah Hoover

“Musicians sometimes struggle to see themselves as athletes,” she says. “But they’re sound producers and sound is the byproduct of movement choice. This is all to help them understand to be mindful and address any physical problems that come up. They need to know how to be efficient in their practice.”

The CMM’s mission also incorporates “music as medicine” research and programming to benefit individuals with degenerative neurological conditions like Parkinsons’s and Alzheimer’s. For instance, the CMM’s ParkinSonics Choral Program work-study trial is a choir that helps Parkinson’s patients with motor and voice-level functions through group singing. On a weekly basis, Leo Wanenchak, associate conductor of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, teaches warm-up exercises and hand gestures to novice singers with Parkinson’s.

“Being in a support group helps voice improvement and quality of life aspects in general” for the 32 patients in the program, says Dr. Pantelyat.

Another “music as medicine” program is the six-week “Guitar-PD” study led by Peabody faculty member Zane Forshee, which examines the effect of finger-style picking and strumming on the upper motor functions, moods and cognitive skills of Parkinson’s patients. The CMM is now examining the results from the 2018 classes, but so far the data already indicates an increase in dexterity and reduction in depression and anxiety among the 24 participants in the two groups.

While noting that the CMM is not the first academic institutional endeavor to examine the healing powers of music on patients and professional musicians, Dr. Pantelyat says, “We aim to be the best, due to the longstanding reputation of the research of Hopkins and the longstanding reputation of Peabody.”

In the future, he says he hopes to increasingly bring the results of the CMM to the general community, through performances, gatherings and collaborative institutional efforts. In addition, Dr. Pantelyat will bring the CMM’s research data and findings to the sixth annual International Association for Music & Medicine Conference to be held next May in Boston.

“What we want to do is use the power of music and experiences to engage people,” says Dr. Hoover, who is writing a book on musicians and health care. “We’re pretty busy. So many people are interested in what we’re doing and want to participate in this. It’s just mushrooming.”

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