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Science and Innovations

Eats and Beats: Parkinson’s Patients Find Healing, Joy in Music

Northern Arizona University

People with Parkinson’s disease often develop trouble with their voices; they begin to whisper and mumble. Speech therapy can help, but so can singing. Flagstaff is one of many cities with a Parkinson’s choir. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, the “Mountain Tremors” are finding healing through music.... in the latest installment of Eats and Beats, stories about food and music.

A dozen people gather in a classroom on Northern Arizona University’s campus for choir practice. A student sets up a portable keyboard.  

Credit Melissa Sevigny
NAU music student Meredith Snow leads the choir through a John Denver song

Shelby Matlock, a soprano in NAU’s School of Music, is today’s conductor. She guides the group through a series of vocal exercises. When warm-ups are over Matlock leads the choir in its first song, a John Denver classic: “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

It’s Joan Harding’s first time at choir practice. She’s a little nervous. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s two and a half years ago.  

“I guess for me it’s been a hard thing because I realize everybody has a different illness—different symptoms and different handicaps,” Harding says. “Being with a friend is very important. Support is very important.”

Her friend Linda Webb convinced her to come. She’s been part of Mountain Tremors from the start. “Most of us couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket!” Webb says. “But we warble along and we have a good time and nobody really minds, because we’re all having fun together.”

Many people with Parkinson’s slur their speech and lose range and volume. But science has shown singing can stave off those symptoms. That’s why NAU speech therapist Fe Murray started the choir two years ago.

“It’s not a cure,” Murray explains, “but it helps you hold onto your voice a little bit longer, to keep your range a little bit longer. The articulation, the breathing, throwing your voice, being able to project—all of those things come together, all the muscle groups, to do one thing: sing that note.”

It takes you back to an era when you were young and maybe feeling good at that time. - Fe Murray

Murray also works with patients in formal speech therapy sessions. But she says singing is better. “I think that when people are singing, they’re not thinking necessarily about their disability or the things they can’t do,” she says. “They’re just enjoying life. Singing songs from your past, it takes you back to an era when you were young and maybe feeling good at that time.”

The choir members laugh when Gordon Holt starts playing the kazoo during the chorus of “All You Need is Love.” For Holt, this choir is a chance to renew his lifelong love of music.     

“Years ago I used to sing in the Braham’s requiem, and the Mozart requiem, and the choir, and it was just heavenly,” Holt says. “But I can’t really do that so much now. That’s not required here, we don’t have to audition for this group, thank God.”

Holt says spending time with people who love music inspires him to keep working on his voice. “People with Parkinson’s know about physical exercise: walking, going to a gym,” he says. “They know that, but a lot of them don’t know so much about the voice. So I would encourage people with Parkinson’s to get into some kind of singing group.”   

Mountain Tremors meets for eight weeks in the fall, spring and summer. It’s free and open to people with any neurological disorder as well as their family and friends.

The choir practice rounds off with a rousing rendition of “Big Yellow Taxi.” Click on the audio link at the top of this page to hear the music.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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