Playing With Parkinson's

Simply put, Sangeeta created new ways to make music -- using breakfast bowls, tabletops, found objects, his omnipresent bag of pills, and his Parkinson's-compromised voice.
10/08/2014 02:11 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2014

Q. What do Muhammed Ali, Billy Graham, Roger Bannister, Steve Allen, Linda Ronstadt, Michael J. Fox, and Robin Williams all have in common?

A. Each of them have inspired and delighted millions of people. And each of them have had to deal with Parkinson's disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that affects approximately 7-10 million people worldwide.

With the recent passing of Robin Williams, the world has gotten yet another opportunity to learn about the ravages of this little-understood disease, named after James Parkinson, an English physician who published the first detailed description of it back in 1817.

But no matter how many news articles, tweets, fundraisers, or newly-detected sufferers of this disease come to light, most of us have very little visceral understanding of what Parkinson's is and how it deeply affects those who lives are turned upside down by its progressive debilitation.

Until now, that is -- with the imminent release, at the Woodstock Film Festival, of Burrill Crohn's groundbreaking documentary, Playing With Parkinson's -- the soul-stirring story of Sangeeta Michael Berardi.

Sangeeta may not be a household name like the other luminaries noted above, but after Crohn's film makes the rounds, he very well may be. A consummate musician, Sangeeta (whose name translates as "Divine Song") has enjoyed, since the 1960s, a successful career as a jazz guitarist and has played with such greats as Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Karl Berger, and Rashied Ali. But in 2001, "Mr. P" (as Sangeeta playfully refers to Parkinson's) came knocking at his door.

The subsequent tremors and shakes -- the most visible signs of the disease -- not only made playing the guitar increasingly difficult, but also the simplest of daily tasks -- like drinking a glass of water... or picking up the phone.... or walking into the next room.

True to his jazz roots, however, Sangeeta, "went with the moment," adapting and adjusting to the new song that life -- his life -- was demanding he play. A lesser man might have abandoned music, but not Sangeeta. Reaching deep within himself, he found a way to turn what others term "disability" into an astounding new ability -- the ability to find beauty, meaning, and self-expression in the present moment, no matter what limitations were thrust upon him.

Simply put, Sangeeta created new ways to make music -- using breakfast bowls, tabletops, found objects, his omnipresent bag of pills, and his Parkinson's-compromised voice. Necessity wasn't only the mother of invention for Sangeeta, it was also the father, cousin, uncle, grandmother, and sound engineer, too.

Previewing Playing with Parkinson's in Burrill Crohn's Woodstock studio two weeks ago, I found myself crying and shaking -- stunned by Sangeeta's indomitable spirit of creativity and the filmmaker's extraordinary ability to communicate the highest attributes of what it truly means to be a human being.

Mitch Ditkoff is a writer, peace activist, and the President of Idea Champions, an innovation consulting and training company based in Woodstock, NY. A good friend of his was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.