The power of the voice: “Think of singing as an exercise”

Interviews

Author: Sarah McGrathPublished: 25 August 2022

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US-based professor Elizabeth Stegemöller shares how she became “hooked” on helping others through music therapy – and how singing may help people with Parkinson’s to manage their symptoms


Please tell us a bit about yourself and your career in music therapy.

I am an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and director of the Graduate Neuroscience Programme at Iowa State University, US. I’m also a music therapist. I’ve always loved music – I’ve been part of a band and a choir, and I’ve played the piano for years. I didn’t like to perform, so helping people through music seemed perfect.

However, it wasn’t long after starting music therapy that I realised there wasn’t much understanding about how music worked. I saw many amazing things during my undergraduate course in neuroscience, and that’s when I knew I wanted to research how music therapy influences the brain.

During my PhD, I began working in a lab that conducted research on Parkinson’s. At the same time, I was working with music therapy groups at a Parkinson’s clinic, and I was hooked. I have been working with people with the condition ever since, trying to understand how music helps their symptoms.

How can music therapy support people with Parkinson’s?

Parkinson’s affects how a person controls their muscle activity – which is why people with the condition are encouraged to exercise. This symptom can impact one’s ability to breathe and swallow. People with Parkinson’s may experience that some thinner liquids and foods can seep through into the lungs when swallowing, because the timing and force of the muscles that control swallowing are impaired. This is further intensified by the reduced ability to cough and clear the lungs.

Singing exercises the muscles that control breathing and uses the same muscles involved in swallowing. So, participating in singing is like exercise for these smaller muscle groups that are sometimes forgotten but are really important for a person’s health.

Here at Iowa State University, we are running our third funded study on the link between singing and Parkinson’s symptoms. This one explores the effects of singing on stress, inflammation, swallowing, and voice and respiratory control. By conducting a 16-week group therapeutic singing programme, we hope to learn more about the underlying physiology of why symptoms may improve from exercising the voice.

What has been most rewarding about your work?

The most rewarding part is being able to help others. I also enjoy receiving feedback from participants who have taken part in my studies. They can tell me exactly how singing affects them, and then I can develop a research study based upon their experiences.

There is also something about singing with a group of people that builds community. I was afraid after Covid-19 that my singing group wouldn’t continue to grow – but thankfully, it has.

What would you say to someone with Parkinson’s who is nervous to start singing?

Think of singing as an exercise. You would not start exercising with the goal of running a marathon – but rather because it is good for you. There are no expectations to be the next opera star. Just sing!

Lead image credit: Iowa State University


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