Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects predominately dopamine-producing neurons in a specific area of the brain called substantia nigra. There are many ways that the conditions manifests from shaking, problems with gait, difficulty with swallow, depression, limb rigidity, low volume in the speaking voice and slowness of movement.
Singing has been proven to help with movement issues. Elizabeth Stegmöller at Iowa University is midway a research project that is showing results that indicate singing for people with Parkinson’s (PWP) may lead to improved motor function and mood.
Vocal issues affect between 60 and 80 percent of people with Parkinson’s. Symptoms range from reduced volume to breathy sounds and intensity. People with Parkinson’s often speak on a monotone. Again, Elizabeth Stegmöller has been researching the benefits of singing on the voice itself with extremely encouraging early data.
But how did I, an opera singer, come to lead singing groups for people with Parkinson’s (PwP)? Well, my father-in-law had Parkinson’s and I was once at home while his speech therapist was practicing exercises with him. These seemed really similar to the warm ups that I would do in preparation for singing. I contacted some local speech therapists and observed their valuable work with PwP. Speech therapy was being used to help strengthen the voice especially with regards to volume as well as the larynx to maintain its functionality especially with regards swallowing.
The problem though was what happened when their speech therapy sessions stopped and how could you encourage people to practise exercises independently. Because of the obvious parallels between singing and speech therapy, becoming a member of a singing group seemed the most obvious answer. Singing groups for choirs have existed in isolation for many years but now the research is establishing their worth and value.
Sing to Beat Parkinson’s (singtobeat.co.uk) is now an international organisation champagning this valuable work.