Home Therapy fund Harmonizing for health: a choir of patients with Parkinson’s disease

Harmonizing for health: a choir of patients with Parkinson’s disease


Editor’s Note: GHN is reprinting this 2019 article in tribute to its author, Judi Kanne, a recently deceased Atlanta freelance journalist and nurse.

Singing is nothing new to Mike Shortal, who is 81 years old and lives in Sandy Springs. He loves music and says being a member of a choir has long been one of the joys of his life.

“I became an engineer because I knew I couldn’t make a career in music, but I always tried to be in one choir or another,” he says.

His passion for singing is one of the reasons he took the news so hard when, at 73, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“It was a difficult diagnosis to accept,” he says.

Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that gradually affects the way the body works. At first, this can lead to stiffness and difficulty walking, balancing, and coordinating. As the disease progresses, the vocal cords, as well as the ability to swallow, are affected. In addition, mental and behavioral changes including sleep problems, depression, memory, and fatigue can ensue.

Symptoms usually progress slowly. Ultimately, involuntary tremors of the hands, arms, legs, jaw, and tongue can accompany slow movement and signs of stiffness, making life with the degenerative disease increasingly difficult.

As one can guess, it was the prospect of vocal issues that made Shortal’s initial diagnosis so distressing. He had suspected he had Parkinson’s disease even before it was confirmed. But once we were sure he had to reckon with the possibility of becoming unable to sing. He wanted to keep his beloved hobby as long as possible.

Then he heard news that changed his outlook: a therapeutic choral program had been developed in the metro Atlanta area. He would not have to be silenced by his illness.

Shortal got involved and the experience made her life much better than it could have been otherwise.

Three organizations have come together to build the success of this unique choir. Most of the funding comes from the Thanks Mom & Dad Fund, which supports programs and services for the aging population.

Additional funding comes from two other Atlanta-based organizations, the George Center and the Alchemy Sky Foundation. The first offers scholarships to families, organizations and programs that provide music therapy services. The latter works with community organizations to bring the healing power of music to those in need.

A crippling disease

Each year, approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and more than 10 million people worldwide live with the disease.

Parkinson’s disease is generally associated with aging. Although there is an “early” form that strikes people under 50, it is relatively rare. The average age from someone diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease is 56 years old.

Choir director Claire Morison is behind the pulpit; Mike Shortal is to his left in a white shirt.

The combined direct and indirect cost of Parkinson’s disease, including treatment, Social Security payments and lost earnings, is estimated to be nearly $ 52 billion a year in the United States, according to the Parkinson Foundation. Medications alone cost an average of $ 2,500 per year, and therapeutic surgery can cost as much as $ 100,000.

Development director Annie Long of the Parkinson Foundation in Georgia said about 20,600 Parkinson’s patients live in Georgia today.

Parkinson’s disease has been personal for a long time. Her mother was diagnosed a few years ago.

“With Parkinson’s disease, there is so much that is beyond our control that you cannot anticipate,” says Long.

Build the right muscles

A number of research studies support the theory that singing helps strengthen muscles associated with swallowing and respiratory control. And music can reduce signs of stress, mood swings, and feelings of depression.

Based on this correlation, patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and choral groups provide an ideal setting for research programs.


“We’re not trying to make them better singers,” says Elizabeth Stegemöller, of the Iowa State University department of kinesiology and music therapist. As a researcher, she works to improve the lives of people with Parkinson’s disease through music.

Stegemöller’s first goal was to help patients enjoy music while gaining additional facial muscle strength, thereby improving their speaking and swallowing abilities.

Certified music therapist Jamie George says she knows about Stegemöller’s extensive research and hopes the word about music therapy will reach more people than ever before.

“More media coverage will result in the expenditure of additional resources to examine research and science,” said George.

She opened the George Center in 2010 and is happy to help support Singing with Parkinson’s Choir. “Music should be the gold standard in almost any rehabilitation setting,” says George.

George says the “feeling good” part is what makes music therapy accessible and motivating – “that’s why patients initially want to participate”.

Music therapist Claire Morison leads the Singing with Parkinson’s choir. She is also a neurological music therapist by training.

In addition to clients with Parkinson’s disease, the George Center offers music therapy to children and adults with various ailments. This includes people with the autism spectrum, people recovering from traumatic brain injury, people with developmental delays (such as cerebral palsy and Down syndrome), and patients with dementia and post-stroke injury. .

Monica Goodman is another fan of music therapy. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 54, which is unusual, and says she was aware of the symptoms at age 46, which would place her in the ‘early onset’ category. “.

“I have definitely seen an improvement in the quality of life since I started singing,” says Goodman of Canton.

Goodman says speaking can be more difficult at night, but not singing.

She says she has had two intensive speech therapy programs (16 sessions in four weeks) and believes this Parkinson’s choir has been of even greater benefit to her.

“The choir chooses songs that address different types of voice issues,” says Goodman. “For example, we train with warm-up exercises to increase our lung capacity,” she says.

“The director’s goal is to improve the tone, pitch, and quality of our voice, and I believe these singing exercises do just that,” Goodman says.

Choose songs carefully

“We have very specific goals and objectives that relate to the communicative symptoms of Parkinson’s disease,” says Claire Morison, Music Director and Certified Music Therapist. The vocal warm-ups and the music itself are designed to enhance neurological music therapy techniques, she says.

Impaired speech quality and slow speech are problems for many patients with Parkinson’s disease. Morison keeps this in mind and “selects music that will help clients improve their respiratory support, articulation and tone quality, as well as strengthen the muscles that open and close their mouths.”

Morison (left) and George

The choir members just enjoy what they do, Morison says. Most are too focused on the song they are singing to stop and consider how therapeutic the whole process is.

And that’s good, because the choir members experience the music and bond with each other instead of dwelling on their own individual struggles. “We see an incredible amount of camaraderie within the group and positive social interactions,” says Morison.

Of course, any choir is better off when its members get along. But for these singers, socializing with other patients who understand the disease process is a real benefit.

Goodman encourages others with Parkinson’s disease to stay involved in the things that matter to them. In his case, it is the choir of other patients.

“It can be a pretty debilitating condition, and attending Parkinson’s choir rehearsals and recitals makes my day brighter,” she says.

“I love to sing, but honestly I’m terrible,” Goodman adds. “I had never joined a choir or been in a choir group before, but when I come to this class, I never feel like I’m terrible.”

Although she is modest about her own vocal abilities, she says several people in the choir have “awesome voices.”

“I might never sing like Adele,” Goodman says, referring to the acclaimed British artist, “but I am strengthening my voice and improving my quality of life.”

Read our article on Judi Kanne here