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August 5, 2014
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Unfrozen: music therapy for people with neurological impairment

Sixty-six-year-old Cheryl has always loved to dance. Good music has always been a part of her life and for years she’d often find herself spontaneously dancing in her Lake of the Pines kitchen. But 13 years ago, things started to change.

One day, while driving, she noticed her fingers on one hand were trembling. In the weeks and months that followed, she began to notice overall weakness and more involuntary shaking.

At the age of 53, Cheryl was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. Although tremors are the most well-known sign of the disease, the disorder can also cause stiffness or slowing of movement and slow, often slurred speech.

After working as a labor and delivery nurse for more than 18 years, Cheryl’s brain was not cooperating with her body — she often felt rigid and frozen.

She found solace in monthly meetings with her Parkinson’s support group, and one day she picked up a flyer that had been put out for members. It was publicizing “Crescendo,” a weekly music therapy group designed for those with neurological impairment, such as Parkinson’s, stroke or traumatic brain injury. Family members and caretakers were also welcome.

After giving it a try once, Cheryl was hooked.

“I really had to make myself get out of bed that first time,” she said. “But now I have something to look forward to every week. There are songs for everybody — ‘Let it Be’ by the Beatles, ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame,’ ‘Swing Low’ and ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy.’ The music helps with my movement and balance. It triggers my brain.”

Led by board-certified music therapists with advanced training in neurologic music therapy, Crescendo members participate in techniques that activate brain functions.

In addition to singing, this often includes drumming, playing instruments, movement, group songwriting and connecting with others through music. No prior musical experience is needed.

“It’s a fun experience with a therapeutic purpose,” said Tara McConnell, a music therapist and founder of McConnell Music Therapy Services. “Music functions like a super vitamin for the brain. It activates every part of the brain simultaneously. These classes are a researched-based participatory experience — people remember things that physically make them move. I’ve seen phenomenal changes.”

Social connection is another key component, added McConnell, as many participants have few outside activities other than doctors’ appointments.

“Neuroscience research is finally supporting what we’ve known for hundreds of years,” she said. “The use of music clinically helps treat illness and improve quality of life. I love my job. It’s fascinating.”

A new 12-week session of the Crescendo Music Therapy Group will begin Sept. 3 and run weekly through Nov. 19.

While Nevada County participants have been traveling to Auburn to meet with Crescendo, McConnell will consider establishing a Grass Valley group if enough people express interest.

Crescendo is a collaboration between McConnell Music Therapy Services and Colla Voce of the Sierra, a foothills nonprofit chorus.

Joan, a Smartsville resident with Parkinson’s, said she hopes a group forms in Grass Valley, as music therapy has improved her life.

Working one-on-one with a therapist, she improved her gait and overall physical functioning by regularly walking to music of varying tempos and syncopation.

“Music is energizing — it overpowers your deliberate control,” she said.

“If I find myself frozen, I imagine a dance rhythm and my legs start moving. Rhythm comes from the autonomic nervous system. Music is a great lifter of spirit, especially when it comes to a situation you can’t avoid. Music speaks to people universally.”

To people who are contemplating joining the group, Cheryl has some advice.

“Get out of your bed and go,” she said. “It’s for all levels — even if you can’t sing, you can just sit and listen. Music frees you up. I go home and keep singing to my dogs. It makes my day.”

Cheryl said she no longer is surprised when she feels the urge to get up out of her chair and move to the music.

“Sometimes I’ll just hang onto one side of my walker and dance,” she said. “Music helps give me a positive outlook. I may have Parkinson’s, but it doesn’t have me.”

To contact staff writer Cory Fisher, email her at cfisher@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.


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The Union Updated Aug 5, 2014 01:01AM Published Aug 6, 2014 11:13AM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.