Aphasia Choir: The healing power of song

Photo by Melissa Cronin
Shelburne resident Kate Hill (second from left, middle row) sings out loud during a recent Aphasia Choir rehearsal.

MELISSA CRONIN
Correspondent

“It’s like magic.”

That’s how South Burlington resident Kate Hill describes what it’s like to sing. Hill suffered a stroke 20 years ago, resulting in expressive aphasia, a condition in which there is an impairment in language, including difficulty producing or comprehending spoken or written words. Aphasia is usually due to an injury to the brain such as stroke, head trauma, tumors, or infections. According to the National Aphasia Association, at least 2 million people in the United States are living with this communication difficulty.

So how is it possible that Hill, or anyone with aphasia, is able to sing? Because language resides in the left side of the brain, people who have suffered a stroke to that area often lose the ability to speak fluently. But that leaves them with a healthy right brain, where music lives.

Enter the Aphasia Choir.

During her career as speech language pathologist at University of Vermont Medical Center, Milton resident Karen McFeeters Leary witnessed how often people with aphasia struggled to speak. But she also realized how much easier it was for them to them to sing songs like “Happy Birthday” and “You Are My Sunshine.” Her training taught her that singing was less difficult for her patients because they were able to tap into the undamaged right side of their brains. With that experience and knowledge, Leary, a singer songwriter with a sharp ear for music, made her long-time dream come true: She started the Aphasia Choir.

“It’s cool to take a dream, take a risk, and put it out there, and see it grow,” she said during a recent choir rehearsal.

The Aphasia Choir will hold its annual concert on Sunday, June 2, at 2 p.m. at Colchester High School in the auditorium, 131 Laker Lane, Colchester. The concert is free and open to the public.

The choir has grown. In 2014, it began with 22 members and is now a close group of 52, with ages ranging between 37 and 86. There are currently 25 stroke survivors and one traumatic brain injury (TBI) survivor. Included in this awe-inspiring musical ensemble are spouses and family members of the survivors, caregivers, UVM students studying communication disorders, a physical therapy assistant, speech pathologists, Leary’s husband, and, of course, Leary herself. Most come from Chittenden County, but some travel from as far as Rutland. While the concert is free for all to attend, there are associated expenses, such as lyric binders for each member, space rental, and event flyers. Leary extends boundless gratitude for the financial support provided over the years by UVM Medical Center Auxiliary, and private donors, like Pomerleau Real Estate, t-shirt sponsor for this year’s concert.

Leary generally chooses popular tunes for the choir, ones with melodies that easily re-charge the right side of the brain, even for those who are nonverbal.

“They move their mouths,” Leary said. “They sing. It’s not perfect, but it’s still easier. It brings a sense of purpose, a feeling of ‘I am here, I have a voice.’”

And their voices were certainly there, unmistakably present and powerful during the rehearsal as they sang foot-stomping tunes like “I’ve Got You Babe” and “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin.’” They were having fun, Leary’s number one goal for the choir.

For Hill, who has been with the choir for three years, singing is exciting. When asked which tunes excite her most, she paused for a moment, her hand on her chest. She then flipped open her lyric binder and pointed to the sheet music. With astounding poise, she graciously said, “Oh yeah, I’ll tell you somethin’ I think you’ll understand … I want to hold your hand. I want to hold your hand.”

Not only does the choir offer members the opportunity to free their voices, it frees them from a sense of isolation. Leary noted that many members initially feel lonely and depressed, but the rehearsals soon become the high point of their week. For South Burlington resident Hank Strashnick, who suffered a stroke six years ago, his first and foremost reason for joining the choir was “to get me out.” Five years later, Strashnick still enjoys the sense of team spirit.

“We’re a group trying to help each other out,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if one of us is a judge, a carpenter, or a nurse. We’re all the same.”

Similarly, Leary sees the choir as family, one that graces her with palpable joy.

“I’m giving, but I’m also receiving,” she smiled. “It’s a reciprocal energetic event.”

Within this cohesive choral family are unique individual strengths. Some members are good at performing solos, for example. Another’s past experience as a choral director makes him a good fit to conduct the choir at times, and a musician plays tunes using an adaptive guitar. Leary works hard to draw from strengths like these in an effort to involve members in the actual performance of the annual Aphasia Choir’s concert, which takes place every June in honor of National Aphasia Awareness Month. The concert is a time to celebrate the members’ courage. “To put themselves out there with their communication difficulties is truly remarkable,” Leary said.

The concert is also about raising community awareness about aphasia. Integral to that awareness campaign is to know that stroke and TBI survivors who struggle to formulate language do not have a mental disability. They have a “communication disorder,” Leary affirmed. Her hope is that the more people who attend the concerts and hear the range of voices singing out loud with purpose, the more this will inspire greater sensitivity toward communication disorders. As she made clear, “Their injuries have not changed who they are as people.”

Strashnick’s shares a similar hope.

“Our minds are fine,” he said.

This is what he wants others to understand. For those who have sustained any kind of injury to the brain, his wholehearted wish centers on perseverance: “You might have to do some things differently, but your life doesn’t stop. Keep doing great things.”

Aphasia Choir Concert: Sunday, June 2, at 2 p.m. Colchester High School Auditorium. 131 Laker Lane, Colchester. Reception to follow the performance. This event is free and open to the public.

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