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A harmonious collaboration between Massachusetts General Hospital and the Jewish Family and Children’s Service offers a bridge between therapy and the enjoyment of music. It is a new approach to helping Parkinson’s patients.

Parkinson’s singing group offers upbeat therapy

21/Dec/2009

From left, Clark Elliot, Stern, and Barbara and Alan Brown

Overcoming obstacles

Seventy-nine-year-old Walter Stern was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease nearly a decade ago. Over the years, he has taken medications and gone to physical therapy to manage symptoms associated with the illness. Since this past September, however, Stern has been participating in a new kind of therapy -- singing -- to address the communication and social obstacles he and other Parkinson's disease patients like him face.

Stern is a member of the Brookline-based chapter of the "Tremble Clefs," a nationwide network of singing groups designed for Parkinson's patients and their caregivers. His group, established through collaboration between Mass General and the Jewish Family & Children's Service, meets for an hour and a half every week at the Brookline Senior Center. Singing enables Parkinson's patients, who commonly have difficulty with vocal loudness and articulation, to learn and practice techniques to improve their speech in an enjoyable, natural way. More importantly, however, the program offers the opportunity for social interaction -- symptoms of the disease, including vocal issues, frequently result in isolation.

A fun, community-based approach

Approximately 20 participants attend the sessions, which begin with warm-up breathing, posture and vocal exercises led by Catherine O'Connor, MS, CCC-SLP, of the Mass General Department of Speech, Language, Swallowing and Reading Disabilities. The remainder is dedicated to working with a conductor and pianist on a range of upbeat songs. There's also a break for socialization and refreshments. The group began this year through conversations between O'Connor; Albert Hung, MD, PhD, of the Mass General Department of Neurology and Movement Disorders Clinic; Nancy Mazonson, MS, OTR/L, occupational therapist and coordinator for the Parkinsons Family Support Program at Jewish Family & Children's Service; and staff of the Brookline Senior Center.

"Participants learn strategies for increasing loudness and improving vocal quality in a socially supportive context," says O'Connor. "It's a fun, community-based approach to learning speech strategies."

Notable improvement

Stern is one of the group’s most vocal fans. He sits at the center of the room and sings proudly; his favorite piece of music is "Edelweiss." Before his diagnosis, Stern was a member of professional chorale groups, including the renowned Masterworks Chorale of Lexington, for more than 40 years. He missed singing with others -- until he learned of the Tremble Clefs. Since joining the group, Stern says he's noted improvement in the strength of his voice, especially when speaking on the phone.

"This program is the opportunity to stare something difficult in its face and to share the goal of overcoming it with others," he adds.

"The songs are very upbeat," says Priscilla Elliot, who participates in Tremble Clefs with her husband Clark, a Parkinson's patient. "I like that attitude. It fits the outlook of the group -- capability rather than disability."

Learn more on the nationwide Tremble Clefs program

For information on the local program, contact Nancy Mazonson by email or at 781-693-5069.

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