Daphne Bryan: ‘We’ve proved that music can heal’

When piano teacher Daphne Bryan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, she thought she’d never play again. But, as she and her daughter Katherine – a top flautist – reveal, when your passion and determination are strong enough, miracles can happen…

Daphne’s story

Music teacher Daphne Bryan, 71, lives in Dorset with her husband David.

Katherine was the first person I called after I left my appointment with the neurologist ten years ago, blinded by tears. I hadn’t even told her I was having tests. I’d assumed the problem I’d been having with my right hand was something like a trapped nerve that could be easily fixed. The Parkinson’s diagnosis absolutely shattered me. My grandmother had the disease and became an invalid.

I stopped playing the piano for a number of years because physically it was just too difficult, particularly as my symptoms worsened, and emotionally it was so painful realising my ability to do the thing I loved so much was slipping away from me. As the disease progressed, I developed a tremor in both hands, my body became rigid, I struggled to swallow and struggled with my voice.

Katherine and Daphne
Katherine and Daphne in Toronto, 2017, where Daphne was working.

Everything changed after I stumbled across information online about a man in Australia called Chris Lacey. He’d spent hours every day carving chess pieces and his Parkinson’s symptoms had all but gone as a result. Inspired by him, I began to explore whether my piano could become a therapeutic tool, both for my brain and my emotional health.

At first I could only manage five minutes a day because it was so exhausting controlling my fingers. Over time I built that up to an hour’s practice a day, which I still do religiously. Through research and writing my book, Music As Medicine, I’ve learnt that playing the piano can bring about changes in the brain. I believe it has established an alternative neural pathway, the old one having been damaged by the disease. My tremor is much milder now, thanks to my piano practice and the medication I started taking five years ago. I also sing and hum, which has improved my swallowing and control over my voice.

I’m so happy I found my way back to my piano not just for the therapeutic benefits, but because playing is a part of who I am. It’s an opportunity for self-expression and I lose myself in the music when I play. It’s something Katherine understands so well.

There was a time when I thought I’d never be a mother, because of fertility problems. I found out I was pregnant six months after my husband’s youngest son, from a previous relationship, died suddenly. When Katherine was born she felt like such a blessing and a new beginning. When I began to teach her the piano, it was never with any expectation she would go on to have a musical career. It was just something nice to do together, no different from other mothers reading stories.

I admit I didn’t take it very seriously when she announced she wanted to have flute lessons. I knew she was talented but I never wanted to be one of those mothers who think their child is brilliant, so looking back I probably played down her abilities. I didn’t trust my own judgment in case it was influenced by maternal pride. It was only when teacher after teacher, at her lessons and then local orchestra, commented on how good she was that it really hit me she was special.

I always strived to be supportive and encouraging, but wanted her to understand that her happiness was all that mattered to me. I knew many talented musicians are never able to forge a career in what is a tough and competitive industry, yet Katherine carried on achieving; there was no stopping her.

Katherine and Daphne 1982
Katherine and Daphne in 1982.

When she went to boarding school, I enrolled to study for a master’s degree in psychology for musicians, and then did a PhD. I was 50 by then but so much of my life had revolved around Katherine and her music; now I had some time for me. Being apart from her was hard, though, and I missed her terribly – never more so than on 9/11, when she was living in New York. She phoned and told me to turn on the TV, and I saw a plane crash into one of the Twin Towers. When she asked should she still go to her classes, I told her yes, assuming it was a tragic accident. Soon after, the second plane hit, and I realised I’d sent my daughter off into a city under terrorist attack. I sat next to the phone for hours, not knowing where she was or if she was safe. When she was finally able to phone me, the relief was indescribable.

When Katherine visits now with her family we play together. I do feel a bit frustrated that I can’t accompany her as well as I used to, but I still love it. From the little girl who told me once she wanted to be the ‘best flute player in the whole world’ she’s achieved so much, through hard work and determination. However, I’m most proud of the genuine, down-to-earth woman and mother Katherine has grown up to be. Who she is gives me as much joy as what she is.

Katherine’s story

Classical flautist Katherine, 38, plays with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. She lives near Glasgow with her husband Kennedy, a musician, and their son Torben, one.

I grew up in Burbage, Leicestershire, surrounded by music. My dad David played everything from jazz to The Beach Boys, while Mum taught piano at home. Mum began teaching me to play the piano when I was five, but my inner diva must have emerged and I demanded ‘real’ lessons. On reflection, I think it was healthy for our relationship that she could support, but not have to instruct me. A year later, I saw a local girl playing the flute and was utterly captivated. Mum agreed I could take it up once I’d passed my Grade 1 piano exam.

It’s ironic that our shared love of music is both a huge part of the bond between Mum and me, and has also been what’s separated us for long periods of time. By 14, I knew I wanted to be a professional musician. I enrolled at Chetham’s, a specialist music boarding school in Manchester. At 18 I won a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York. It’s only now, as a mother myself, I realise how selfless it was of Mum to encourage me to leave home and move so far away at such a young age, especially as I’m an only child. She knew how badly I wanted to make music my career – and she let me go. Her visits during my three years in New York were special times, and I always felt her gentle pride that I was there, pursuing my dream.

When I phoned Mum to tell her I’d been appointed principal flute of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, aged just 21, she was overjoyed for me. Seven years later, in 2010, we shared a very different phone call when she broke the devastating news that she had Parkinson’s disease. The realisation she wasn’t invincible hit me with such force. Before that day I’d never worried about Mum – there was never any reason to. In an instant that changed for ever. I also knew, because of the level of commitment my job demands, as well as living hundreds of miles away, that I wasn’t going to be able to support her as much as I would want. I’d always had the luxury of being totally single-minded about my work. For the first time I felt painfully torn between my career and my role as a daughter.

Katherine and Daphne
Outside the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, where Katherine performs.

When Mum stopped playing the piano after her diagnosis, it was heartbreaking. Her music is such an intrinsic part of her identity. I knew it must feel like a piece of her was missing and I feared for the effect on her mental health. Slowly she found her way back to it, though. Underneath her gentle exterior there is a gritty determination and she refused to give in to the disease.

Since having my son Torben, I’m always asked whether I’d like him to become a musician, too. I take the same approach Mum did. If he wants to, I’ll be there for him. If he doesn’t, that’s fine with me, too. I’ve never felt any weight of expectation from Mum on my shoulders, only her unwavering support and quiet but deep pride at everything I’ve achieved. If I can emulate those maternal qualities, I’ll be happy.

Daphne and Katherine in four

Describe each other.

Daphne: Determined. Sensitive. Loyal.

Katherine: Kind. Disciplined. Inspiring.

Their worst habit?

Daphne: When she visits me, she leaves all her (many) shoes piled up by the front door.

Katherine: She leaves dirty plates beside the dishwasher.

When you’re together…

Daphne: Hearing her play is wonderful.

Katherine: It’s so special because it only happens a few times a year.

Your favourite memory of each other?

Daphne: Watching her play with the London Symphony Orchestra, at the Royal Festival Hall, when she was just 15.

Katherine: Singing along to Bananarama in her car on the way to music lessons.

Daphne’s book Music as Medicine, Particularly in Parkinson’s is published by Clink Street Publishing, £7.99. Katherine’s most recent releases, Silver Bow on Linn Records and Silver Voice on Chandos Records, are available from amazon.co.uk.

As told to Eimear O’Hagan.