If you had told David Wiethop a few years ago that he’d be in a choir, he wouldn’t have believed it.
“I’ve never had a good voice,” Wiethop says. “I’m a terrible singer, and I know nothing about rhythm.”
But now Wiethop croons weekly with a half-dozen others who meet every Thursday afternoon on the campus of Maryville University. They’re part of a Maryville initiative called Tremble Clefs, a choral group composed of people with Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects the body’s motor system, including the muscles involved in speaking.
Singing can help fortify those muscles, says Megan Moran, ’16, who earned her master’s in music therapy. Moran has directed the choir since it debuted last January, with piano and group assistance from Colleen Haviland, ’17, also a music therapy graduate. They begin each session with posture and breathing work.
“If you don’t have the breath, you can’t speak. Breath is like gas for the voice,” Moran says. “The end goal is to improve or maintain respiratory and voice function.”
From Peter Piper to the Beatles
Moran chooses songs like “Sentimental Journey” and “When I’m 64” for their familiarity as well as their therapeutic qualities. The Beatles classic packs in an unusual amount of words, offering many opportunities to work on diction.
Weekly repetitions of phrases like “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” also lighten the mood while providing important benefits.
“Speaking tongue twisters after singing the tongue twisters helps with neuroplasticity, forming new connections in the brain,” Moran says. “The tongue twisters serve to work the muscles.”
Moran also asks participants to make faces and smile at each other, something singer Rick Walsh wasn’t sure about at first.
“I was suspicious,” Walsh says. “Now, it’s funny. I get a kick out of it.”
These exaggerated eye and mouth movements help participants with something called “flat affect,” or a lack of distinct facial expressions, another feature of Parkinson’s.
The local chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association supports Maryville’s Tremble Clefs, along with another group that meets weekly at Salem United Methodist Church in Ladue. The program is based in scientific knowledge, says to Soo-Jin Kwoun, PhD, associate professor of music therapy at Maryville.
“Research shows that after people engage in singing for a couple of weeks, they maintain their speech function, which we consider a gain,” Kwoun says.
After nearly a year in the program, participant Nancy Freeman feels more confident in social situations.
“When I used to go to dinner parties with a lot of background noise, I was reluctant to talk,” Freeman says. “I thought no one would understand me or hear me.”
Now, Freeman credits the Tremble Clefs program for strengthening her voice and helping her remember to sit up straight, project and enunciate.
Both Wiethop and Walsh are enjoying better communication at home.
“My wife says to me, ‘I like the Tremble Clefs for you because when you get home, I can hear you again,’” Walsh says.
A fundamental tenet of the program is that Improving the ability to be understood leads to a better quality of life.
“It’s a basic human need to express yourself,” Kwoun says. “It’s the connection between patients and their loved ones.”
(Photos by Jerry Naunheim)