This is a special guest post brought to you by Claire Gentry, MT-BC. Claire is a board-certified music therapist and works as a subcontractor for Wholesome Harmonies. She provides many of our in-home services for children and teens with special needs. Claire also facilitates music therapy for Friendship Circle of Miami Beach/Bal Harbor, Rockin’ and Readin’ at the Library, and the Park Optimist Support Group for individuals with Parkinson’s Disease. Read on to find out all about the Park Optimist group and how music therapy is used with this group….

Claire Gentry, MT-BC

I’m just having the best time with the ParkOptimists of Miami.  We get together once a week to sing, move to music and play all types of instruments (even kazoos!).

Did I mention we are touching on many goals that are covered in typical treatments and therapies for individuals with Parkinson’s Disease?  We are doing this all through our music therapy group and having a great time in the process!

Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative brain disorder that affects the muscles of the body.  There is currently no cure for PD but therapy can help to maintain and even build muscle, which helps to manage symptoms and prolong the effects of the disease.  Most individuals with PD benefit from exercise, physical therapy, speech and occupational therapy.  Music Therapy combines many of these therapeutic goals in a variety of ways.

A typical group session with the Park Optimist group begins with a chair-based movement routine to a lively recording of a song that brings back memories for many of the group members.  We love Jazz music for this activity!

Next, we warm up our voices by doing numerous vocal exercises, which promote exercise of the facial muscles, the lungs and the diaphragm.  One example is singing ‘oo-ee-oo-ee’ up and down the scale, moving up a half step each time.  Many group members are amazed at how high they are able to sing when doing these vocal warm-ups.  We also do many other typical vocal warm-ups that would be heard in a choir rehearsal before the singing begins, including breathing exercises.  We practice good singing posture, which strengthens the muscles in the back and allows the lungs to work to their full capacity.

We like to have fun so we use all we have learned while singing familiar tunes by Elvis, Hank Williams, The Beatles, Diana Ross and the Supremes and more!  Members of the group especially enjoy reminiscing on many of the songs we sing.  It’s always amazing to hear stories from the group members about seeing some of these famous musicians live.  One woman mentioned seeing Louis Armstrong sing “What a Wonderful World” live in New York City after we sang the song in our group.

We usually pull out our kazoos during our singing time and we are out of breath by the time we put them down!  Kazoos naturally make the lungs work harder to make a sound than does typical singing…much like how humming a tune (audibly) is more work than singing the song itself (go ahead, try it!).  When using the kazoos, we might play to familiar tunes, do “vocal” exercises or even hold out notes as long as we can to build endurance and work on providing a steady stream of air as we play (we call this the “Kazoo Challenge”).  This can transfer into singing and speaking and can increase the volume in speech, something that is a very common issue for individuals with PD.

We also take time during our music therapy session to exercise to music.  Many of these exercises looks like a chair exercise routine placed to live music.  The music provides a rhythm and a structure to the exercise and helps the brain to actually entrain to the beat.  Some members notice their tremors lessen when doing exercise to music.  They also notice that it is easier to move to a beat than to move spontaneously.  We also do other types of movement to music that involves rhythm instruments and props (such as scarves and streamers).

One of the best things about being a part of a group like the ParkOptimists of Miami is seeing the relationships of the members grow as a supportive web for each other.  Living and dealing with PD is a struggle each day for the individual with the disease as well as their families.  Many members are accompanied by a spouse or family member and get to participate in an exciting group together as well as meet other people dealing with the same challenges they do.  I’m lucky to be a part of this wonderful support group!