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A volcanic disruption

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 21 April 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c2180
  1. Desmond O’Neill, consultant physician in geriatric and stroke medicine, Dublin
  1. doneill{at}

    “If you want to make God laugh tell him your plans,” was a proverb that re-entered common currency in the last week. In common with many conference organisers (and impromptu vulcanologists) I was preparing for the worst on Saturday. I was to chair a long planned national conference on the brain and music, and three international speakers were due to fly in. While we were fortunate to field an excellent local speaker as one substitute, the stellar qualities of the other two speakers were such that we were poised to cancel the meeting. In the event, new technology and the adaptability of enthusiastic delegates saved the day. For a limited period at least, it would appear that Goethe’s dictum “It is when constrained that the master shows himself” holds in a crisis situation.

    The presentations were broadcast via web based technology to a large screen in Dublin’s National Concert Hall, with generally good sound quality. When the speaker was not using slides or videos his image showed full screen; with slides, the speaker occupied a space of about a 10th of the screen in the upper right hand corner. Paul Robertson, the celebrated violinist and a pioneer in promoting dialogue between musicians and the neurosciences, spoke movingly of his own experiences with stroke, the restorative nature of creativity, and the experience of teaching the medical humanities in the Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth. There was a particular charm in the informality of Paul talking from his study in his home, and he brought the house down by finishing with an extract from a Bach partita on the violin. The slight pixillation of the image, and the episodic tiny breaks in the sound transmission, added in some ways to the experience: it was almost like the surface static on 1930s recordings of great violinists.

    Daniel Levitin, a convincing evangelist for a realistic and scientific approach to music and neuroscience, had the luxury of better bandwidth and gave an equally stimulating overview of the neurological underpinnings of music. His background as a highly successful record producer and sound engineer (to Steely Dan, among others) provided a highly entertaining and wide ranging variety of musical illustration, including Beethoven’s Fifth played on power tools. Between these broadcasts Jane Edwards, director of a graduate music therapy course, gave an excellent presentation with a strong focus on the role of music and music therapy in areas such as neurodevelopment and in child-parent interactions. Musical interludes were provided by a music therapy grouping. (In honour of the occasion we would have liked to play one of the most graphic musical depictions of a volcano, Hekla, by the Icelandic composer Jón Leifs, but its demands for a percussion section of 19, including “rocks with a musical quality,” chains, anvils, sirens, church bells, shotguns, and cannons, defeated us.)

    Did the experience convert me to the use of webcasts in conferences? Up to a point: as with teleconferences for everyday business, the technique is probably best seen as a supplementary tool between regular meetings, which bring all the important human, emotional, and informal contacts engendered by direct contact. If teleconferencing allows for a wider diffusion of remarkable “live” presentations, including direct question and answer sessions, interspersed with speakers who are physically present and time for coffee breaks to allow networking and socialising, then this may be a promising development. It may also allow those who receive many conference invitations to respond to more of them, help to save the environment, and see more of their families.

    However, a fully webcasted conference would be a step too far: let us hope that the present hiatus in travel will not dissuade us in the future from continuing to benefit from the very real insights (and pleasures) that we gain from our physical engagement and interaction at conferences.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c2180