Last year Linda Ronstadt announced that she has Parkinson’s disease and can no longer sing. In an AARP Magazine interview she stated, “No one can sing with Parkinson’s. No matter how hard you try.” Music therapists and other experts who work with Parkinson’s disease patients, say this is not true. While she may no longer be able to sing, many people can and do sing, and for some, it is part of their Parkinson’s treatment.
Melinda C. Kurowski, MA, MT-BC, a board certified music therapist in Rochester, New York, works with Parkinson’s patients. We spoke to her to find out how singing can help people suffering from the disease.
MM: In your experience, can people sing with Parkinson’s?
Kurowski: Yes, they can sing. I was surprised to see Linda’s comment. Parkinson’s presents differently person to person and the onset of progression of the disease is really not consistent. Even the amount and severity of symptoms are variable so to say that no one can sing is extreme I think.
MM: How does the disease affect the ability to sing?
Kurowski: It’s a disorder of the nervous system affecting movement. Think about the movements involved in speech, and singing specifically; the muscles involved in providing breath support start to be affected. Skills that once were automatic, now require increasing energy. A lot of people that I work with tell me that they don’t even notice that anything has changed with their vocal volume until their spouses or their friends ask them to repeat themselves. Their muscles are becoming weaker and they don’t respond as readily. Vocal cords need to come together fully in order to seal and vibrate and create sound. Without enough breath support you end up with gaps between the vocal folds. Or one vocal cord may get a little sluggish and not come together as it should. You end up with an airy or quieter sound.
MM: How can speech therapy help Parkinson’s patients retain or restore their ability to sing?
Kurowski: I think the key element is increasing awareness of the process of being able to speak and to sing. So they take part in exercises that teach them what’s involved in breath support. They’ve got to support it from the diaphragm. Where is that in the body? How can they use it better? How do they sustain their voice? Working on things like that helps them to use what they still have better. I think a lot of us take for granted that we can speak and have a conversation with one another. When we use the resources available to us more efficiently, we can be even louder and talk for longer periods of time. Singers do that all the time. When they get trained they learn how to project their voices and how to hold notes. I kind of like to think of singing as the jogging of speech. It takes a little more effort to sing than it does to speak.
MM: How is singing used as a therapy?
Kurowski: I think just the process of singing [is beneficial]. When you are working on a certain skill over and over it can be a tedious process, so adding the element of music, singing in this case, can make the process so much more enjoyable. Plus it does require more energy and effort to create a song sound, than a spoken sound, so you are getting in a little bit of extra exercise or work when you sing.
The majority of the people that I work with have never sung professionally. I feel like singing can be intimidating, especially if you’ve been told that you don’t have a good voice. You don’t have to be a singer like Linda Ronstadt to be able to sing in a group and to sing well. The focus isn’t really on the perfection of sound, it’s on being willing to try. People find that, when the pressure is taken off, they enjoy it and they are quite good at it. Sometimes they are surprised to find that their instrument is actually still alive and strong. Through very basic singing exercises they develop a better awareness of how to project their voices and how to have better articulation. It’s a very enjoyable way to work on some things that may be disheartening.
MM: What percentage of people with Parkinson’s disease are you able to help in some way to be able to sing again?
Kurowski: I would say in the high 90s. It’s tough to put it into a percentage, but pretty much everybody who has come to work with me on these exercises says that, in particular, their spouses notice a difference. I’m really glad to be able to use something that I love, music, to help people to be able to have conversations with the people they care about. I am very passionate about it.