Elizabeth Stegemöller arranged a circle of metal folding chairs around a piano as clients started arriving for a weekly music therapy class for people with Parkinson's disease.
For the next hour, Stegemöller, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, will lead the class through a series of vocal exercises and songs. Singing uses the same muscles associated with swallowing and respiratory control – two functions complicated by Parkinson's disease, which can lead to death – and Stegemöller's research has shown singing significantly improves this muscle activity. The results are published in the journals Disability and Rehabilitation and Complementary Therapies in Medicine.
"We're not trying to make them better singers, but to help them strengthen the muscles that control swallowing and respiratory function," Stegemöller said. "We work on proper breath support, posture and how we use the muscles involved with the vocal cords, which requires them to intricately coordinate good, strong muscle activity."
Jackie Manatt started attending the class two years ago. A love of music is not the reason she keeps coming back every week – research is her primary motivation. Diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 13 years ago, she wants to help advance the science and understanding of the disease, which is exactly why Stegemöller started the singing class. In return, Manatt has noticed improvements in how she projects.
"I don't have much volume in my voice, which is very normal with Parkinson's, to have the voice go," Manatt said. "I just keep thinking I would probably have even less volume by now if I hadn't taken this singing class."
Participants, their caregivers and families have noticed other benefits. Stegemöller says they have reported changes related to stress, mood and depression. Stegemöller has received a grant from the GRAMMY Foundation to study these acute effects and see if there is measurable improvement.