It’s just before 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. If you were to walk by the Blount Memorial Medical Fitness Center right now, you’d very likely hear the sounds of more than a half dozen harmonicas being playfully tuned. It’s also very likely that these sounds would pique your curiosity, as this sort of thing is decidedly not something you’re accustomed to hearing in a hospital. But, you’d better get used to it, because the next hour belongs to the Medical Fitness harmonica group known as “Rare Aire,” a weekly gathering of COPD patients that is discovering new ways music can heal.
“In junior high, I played the clarinet and I hated it,” said Judy Lancaster with a laugh. “But, this is fun, and it definitely does help. I can tell,” she added.
Lancaster started pulmonary rehabilitation at Blount Memorial for her COPD last August. “I could inhale, but I had trouble blowing out,” she said. “Getting more oxygen into your lungs is what COPD treatment is all about. A few months ago, I started pulmonary rehab. After 36 sessions, you get access to the Medical Fitness area. That’s where I learned about the harmonica group,” she added.
Each meeting is led by Blount Memorial senior services coordinator Edward Harper, who brings not only his harmonica, but also an acoustic guitar. Together, Harper and the group spend the hour tackling songs and doing breathing exercises.
“I play a few songs and they join in, then we’ll do some exercises that challenge normal breathing. We keep the hour fun by exploring tunes and sounds on the harps that they feel like doing,” Harper said. “Medical Fitness Center assistant director Kathy Tallent approached me last fall with the idea of using harmonicas as an alternate COPD therapy. As soon as she told me about how it helps with COPD and lung function, I said ‘Yes, let’s do it now.’ I don’t know the complete physiology of back pressure and gas exchange behind it, but to me, it just makes sense. If you’re exercising the lungs more, inhaling more, exhaling more and challenging your diaphragm, you’re going to get healthier. That’s the general principle. When you play the harmonica in a modulated form, similar to pursed-lip breathing of resistance inhaling and exhaling, that is exercise with immediate benefits,” he explained. “We use a standard C harmonica, which gives them a lot of range. It has the low-tone vibrations, which can help loosen the mucus that clogs the lungs, and it also provides them some restricted breathing exercise on the high-note end. We incorporate playing the blues because it involves a lot more inhaling and because you can’t hit a wrong note,” he added.
Blount Memorial started the harmonica group in November 2014. “When I was researching this, I found that a few other American clinics were using harmonicas to help patients improve lung function, but I found only a few clinics that incorporated organized activities where people were actually playing together. The harmonicas were used primarily on an individual basis to increase function,” Harper explained.
But as “Rare Aire” plays harmonica renditions of “Oh, Susanna,” “Stand by Me” or their signature song “Flip, Flop & Fly,” you’re also likely to hear a group member sing a verse or two. It’s quite a performance – even if performing isn’t the goal.
“When we do this, it’s not about performance or learning to play the harmonica. It’s about doing something that is fun and enhances lung function. I’m not teaching them how to play a song note for note. If we learn how to play the harmonica, that’s just a side benefit,” Harper said. “If you are having fun with something, you will want to do it again,” he added.
And, for her part, Lancaster says she is learning how to play. “It’s a really cheerful group, and it’s a lot of fun,” she said. “A year ago, I was reading about lung disease. There was a comment on the article that mentioned a harmonica, so I bought one and messed around with it, but I didn’t really get involved with it until I got here. Now, I find myself playing the harmonica at home almost every day. If you think about it, the harmonica is inhaling and exhaling. It works your lungs and it strengthens them. For me, it seems like it’s helping my diaphragm, too. I breathe easier now,” she said. “Between pulmonary rehabilitation and the harmonica program, I’m no longer on oxygen. I think more places that have pulmonary rehabilitation programs should offer this, as well. It has definitely improved my breathing,” she added.
For more information about the Blount Memorial Medical Fitness Center or the harmonica group, call 865-977-5636.