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When Music Becomes Your Medicine

Playing an instrument offers physical and emotional benefits if you have health issues


Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report

If music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, then playing music hath charms to heal the savage breast, or, more appropriately, the damaged lungs.

This is what Tom Zoe of Austin, Texas believes. So he helped create a program at Seton Medical Center in Austin, where he volunteers, to teach sufferers of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other chronic lung diseases to play the harmonica as part of their physical therapy.

The blowing and drawing required to play the harmonica are excellent exercises that help patients with COPD. The exercise also improves muscle tone in lips, cheeks and tongue.

Whether they’re playing fairly easy songs like 'You Are My Sunshine' or blowing a blues harp, harmonica players exercise their lungs effectively

Zoe emphasizes that no musical knowledge is necessary, just a willingness to use the harmonica as a therapeutic tool. In classes, he teaches students the basics of making sound from the harmonica and how to play simple songs. They use a method that shows which note to play and whether to draw in or blow out.

Zoe says the patients enjoy the classes much more than just doing breathing exercises, because they all get to play songs together and feel like musicians, not patients.

And whether they’re playing fairly easy songs likeYou Are My Sunshine or blowing a blues harp, harmonica players exercise their lungs effectively.

Why Music Is A Multi-Faceted Therapy

Music therapy has been around for a long time — Hippocrates was known to have played music for his mental patients as early as 400 B.C. — but only recently became a recognized medical discipline with board certification.

It is a helpful tool for therapists in treating mental health disease, developmental and learning disabilities, dementia, and acute and chronic pain.

Music therapy also provides therapists with important clues to help assess emotional and physical health — we’ve witnessed how up-tempo and dance music sparks toe-tapping, even in individuals with late-stage dementia. And music from the distant past, often when they were young adults in their early 20s, will elicit a response and singing along from patients who are otherwise non-communicative.

But so-called “harmonica therapy,” or the playing of an instrument that produces music, is a tool that therapists have just recently endorsed to make physical and occupational therapy more interesting and more effective.

While musicians have long gone to physical therapists seeking help because playing their instrument had caused pain or dysfunction, harmonica therapy turns the whole thing around. As Zoe observes, “It gives me pleasure to hear how all these people talk about how much it helps. They’ve worked hard to develop the ability to play, and they get a huge reward, both physically and emotionally.”

Lifelong, Proven Benefits of Playing Music

In her article, Joanne Loewy, director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine, explains how playing a wind instrument like the harmonica or recorder not only builds lung capacity but also helps patients control their breathing and regulate heart rate and blood pressure. She writes of an asthma patient who, for many years, had relied on a quick-relief inhaler when experiencing shortness of breath. Through learning to play the recorder, she learned breathing techniques she can now use instead of her inhaler.

I recall my own introduction to music therapy from my aunt Sally.

When I was a kid, she would sit at the piano and hammer out tunes at every family function. We all gathered around harmonizing, making those family get-togethers much more enjoyable to the kids as we competed to earn that one solo line she would award. As she aged and became riddled with arthritis, she told me that rather than just do the exercises that her physical therapist had assigned to help with her dexterity, she would sit at the piano and try to play. It frustrated her, for sure, because she could no longer dance around the keys as she used to. But playing tunes, albeit more slowly, made the exercises fun, and both she and her therapist were convinced it helped her physical condition.

My aunt Sally was a natural, playing piano by ear. But since not everyone has that gift, there are many websites that offer instruction on playing harmonica, as well as most other instruments. As Zoe encourages, “Learn to play an musical instrument. and it just might change your life.”

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Bart Astor
By Bart Astor
Bart Astor, an expert in life transitions and elder care, is the author of the book AARP Roadmap for the Rest of Your Life: Smart Choices About Money, Health, Work, Lifestyle and Pursuing Your Dreams and Baby Boomer’s Guide to Caring for Aging Parents. His website is BartAstor.com and he can be reached at [email protected].@bartastor

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