Power chords: Music program gives people with speech challenges the gift of song

It’s called “Passing the Mask.”

One person hides their face behind their hands, turns to the person sitting beside them, then opens their hands to reveal an obvious expression.

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The next person sitting in the circle then covers their face and turns to share the same expression, and so on until everyone in the group has had a chance to pass it on.

It’s an exercise meant to stimulate facial muscles and is particularly useful for people with conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, which causes muscle rigidity and can result in a loss of facial expression (what is sometimes referred to as “masked faces”).

Some people with Parkinson’s also experience speech changes such as speaking softly, quickly, slurring or hesitating before talking. Speech may also be more monotone without usual inflections.

That’s something Joani Bye can empathize with. The longtime North Vancouver resident has been singing professionally since her first year at the University of British Columbia.

Initially a student in the music program, she switched to voice in her second year, and has performed with a variety of well-known acts over the years, including Cher, INXS, and on Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer.”

“That’s me screaming in the background,” she says with a laugh, adding, “I’ve done a lot of work. I’ve been around a long time.”

After a friend was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Bye became involved with the Parkinson’s Society of B.C. and participates in annual fundraising events.

Last year, she saw an email from the organization asking for volunteers to attend a training course to become instructors for SongShine. The email called for people with a background in music, theatre, physical therapy, or speech therapy.

Bye knew immediately she wanted to do it.

Started in the U.S. in 2002, SongShine incorporates breathing and relaxation exercises, theatre sports, role playing, vocal exercises, and singing in a curriculum designed for anyone with some form of speech loss or speech changes caused by medical conditions or even just an aging voice.

The idea behind the program is to stimulate alternative brain pathways to help facilitate speech recovery and speaking confidence, explains Bye.

It’s a concept pulled from the relatively new theory of neuroplasticity, which suggests that the brain has the ability to create new neural pathways to work around damage or injury.

“Your voice is a big part of your identity and, (not just) for me in particular but for anybody, losing your ability to communicate is devastating,” she says.

The program is not a replacement for speech therapy but serves to complement it, similar to doing physical therapy and also taking yoga classes.

In January, Bye led her first 10-week SongShine program at North Shore Neighbourhood House with Penelope Bacsfalvi, a speech pathologist.

She recounts a special moment from that course involving a stoke survivor who could not speak clearly.

“We were singing the song ‘When I Fall in Love,’” recalls Bye. “It’s a difficult melody and I was teaching it to the class one line at a time.”

She demonstrates by singing the first line:

“When I fall in love. ...”

The class repeated the line.

“It will be forever. ...”

The class again repeated. Then something a little magical happened.

“He finished the whole song,” she notes, referring to the stroke survivor. “The class was completely silent and when he finished, everybody clapped.”

Many of the people who attend SongShine have trouble with speech volume, forming words, and finding words. But if the brain can’t find a single word, sometimes it can find a whole song, suggests Bye.

“Music is powerful and it’s the power of music that’s being used,” she says.

Sue Chalmers was diagnosed with lupus 20 years ago. The disease affected her brain function, leaving her word-depleted with a toneless voice and delayed thought processing.

“After two years and three months of day rehab at Lions Gate Hospital, I was ready to go to classes at North Shore Neighbourhood House,” she says in an email.

Chalmers attended the first SongShine session and reports the facilitators were “amazing.”

“I love this class. After an hour of SongShine, people’s spirits are lifted. To regain speech, singing comes easier than speaking. I’ve heard and seen gains in each participant. Aside from skill-building, the course helps develop confidence and camaraderie,” she says. “Participants are taught to comfortably breathe deeply after gentle stretch exercises, and this aids volume without straining. The SongShine program is scientifically formed with each step made towards a gain. Incorporated are games, which ultimately result in class laughter while learning.”

Bye explains that the camaraderie comes easily.

“Everyone in the room is in the same situation in one way or another and they’re so supportive of each other that it’s a very comfortable, trusting feeling in that class,” she says, adding it’s also important that participants enjoy the experience. “We always have fun. There’s always laughter at some point in the class.”

Tony Burrows attended the same session of SongShine at North Shore Neighbourhood House. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease six years ago, Burrows was then diagnosed with a related condition called multiple system atrophy (MSA) two years ago, which has made his voice weak.

“It is the most frustrating thing in the world, not being able to communicate with people not only verbally but also through script as this MSA has also stripped me of the ability to be able to communicate through handwriting,” says Burrows via email.

The North Vancouver resident has started learning sign language to help him communicate and uses an app on his iPad as well.

“I think that the overall (SongShine) program is tremendous at voice activating, and I would personally recommend it to anybody who has trouble verbally communicating as a result of whatsoever life has thrown their way,” says Burrows.

When asked about the possibility of his voice returning to full strength, Burrows is optimistic. “I think that this is entirely up to me and how hard I want to push myself, but I think that with the magical combination of these classes along with a concerted effort on my part, I firmly believe that anything can happen.”

The next session of SongShine is currently being held at Highlands United Church in North Vancouver, and there are still spots available.

Anyone interested in attending or getting more information about the program can contact Bye directly at joanibye@icloud.com.

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