Pianist-psychiatrist explores the healing power of music

Listen to psychiatrist-musician Dr. Richard Kogan play Gershwin

Faculty, staff and students nearly filled the USF Health Auditorium Sept. 22 to hear award-winning concert pianist Richard Kogan, MD, play for the Department of Psychiatry Grand Rounds. As a psychiatrist and a musician, Dr. Kogan provided key insights into how vital music is to medicine.

“Music is a highly underutilized modality,” Dr. Kogan said. “When science documents exactly what music does for healing, there will be an explosion in its use for treating people.”

From left, Dr. Lois Nixon, Dr. Francisco Fernandez, Dr. Richard Kogan, and first-year medical student Trey Penton.

In the Grand Rounds, Dr. Kogan focused on George Gershwin, noting that the world-renowned composer’s story is probably the most profound example of the healing power of music. Dr. Kogan said the young Gershwin would probably be diagnosed today with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and that his lack of focus and bad behavior as a child came to an abrupt halt when he first heard a violinist at a school assembly.

“Gershwin was transfixed by the music,” Dr. Kogan said, adding that Gershwin had come from a poor home and that hearing the violinist was probably his first real exposure to music. After that moment, Gershwin’s bad behavior stopped and he pored over learning music, even dropping out of school at the age of 15 to devote himself to it. Gershwin noted himself that “studying piano turned a bad boy into a good boy.”

Dr. Kogan displayed his own musical talent by playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (which Gershwin wrote in three weeks) and then Summertime (from the score Gershwin wrote for the play Porgy and Bess).

Although Gershwin’s ADHD may have been eased after finding music, Dr. Kogan said that Gershwin continued with mental illness, entering a boastful period in his 20’s that might have been signs of narcissism, and then serious depression at age 35, with sleeping troubles and crying spells. Interestingly, Dr. Kogan said, it was during these down times that Gershwin wrote mostly peppy love songs, and that writing the bluesy, melancholy tone for Porgy and Bess may have helped him deal with some of his depression.

Signs of the brain tumor that eventually killed Gershwin came next, with dizzy spells, pounding headaches, and the sense that he smelled burning garbage or rubber before blacking out. George Gershwin died July 9, 1937, following surgery trying to remove the tumor.

Dr. Kogan studied piano at the Juilliard School and medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is known for his lecture/recitals that explore music’s role in healing and the influence mental illness has had on the creative output of classical composers. The evening following USF’s Grand Rounds, Dr. Kogan performed for the Second Annual Hillsborough County Medical Association/USF Health Dean’s Lecture, an annual collaborative lecture also supported by Tampa General Hospital.

Story by Sarah A. Worth, USF Health Communications
Photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications