It was the most unusual audience that jazz musician Carlos Aguilera had ever appeared in front of: 16 doctors and nurses in a hospital operating room in Malaga, Spain.
Because Aguilera was also the patient, undergoing neurosurgery, the performance was actually a test.
With a piece of his skull removed and his brain exposed to the world, the 27-year-old was asked by his surgeons to read some sheet music and play his alto saxophone. A few mellow strains of “Misty” later, the medical staff confirmed that Aguilera’s musical ability and understanding of musical language was intact after a 12-hour operation to remove a brain tumor. It was the first time such an operation, on a conscious patient playing an instrument, had taken place in Europe.
These types of surgeries are uncommon, but they are increasingly possible because of advances in fine-tuned brain imaging that allow for more precise location and removal of tumorous tissue or the source of an involuntary tremor. They are also possible because brain tissue lacks pain receptors, so patients can be kept awake while doctors tiptoe through their gray matter and, as they do so, ask the patients to read, count, speak – or play music – to ensure that critical areas have not been damaged during the operation.
Aguilera, who spoke with reporters in Spain last week, said (through a translator) that the experience of playing the saxophone while his brain was being operated on was “like lying on the beach.” One of his surgeons added that having him conscious the entire time and able to respond to questions was “the only way to monitor the language. There’s no other way.”
Although Aguilera’s operation took place in October, he and the regional hospital in Malaga where it took place waited until he was fully recovered to hold a news conference and release a short video.
Operations similar to Aguilera’s have taken place around the world in the past few years. In August, a guitarist played and sang the Beatles standard “Yesterday” during the removal of a tumor from his brain in Brazil.
A year earlier, a Slovenian tenor sang Schubert’s “Gute Nacht,” accompanied by a piano in the operating room, as surgeons removed a tumor from his brain at a hospital in the Netherlands.
A number of other musicians, including blue-grass banjo legend Eddie Adcock and American concert violinist Roger Frisch, also have undergone brain surgeries while awake – and been asked to play their instrument during the operations – in procedures to relieve them of uncontrollable tremors.
Now fully recovered, Aguilera has resumed playing with an orchestra, though he remains somewhat stunned by the entire experience.
“Two months ago I was lying in a hospital bed,” he said at a news conference, “and now life is waiting for me, like I was born again.”