Every month, a handful of people gather on Bloomington’s east side to make music together. The tunes they produce aren’t headed to the top of the charts, but the sounds are likely to improve their lives.
Nashville-based singer-songwriter and harmonica player extraordinaire Chris Janson is a three-time Academy of Country Music award nominee. He also suffers from asthma, and three years ago signed on to become the national spokesman for a program called Harmonicas for Health. It’s an effort designed to help those with breathing difficulties improve quality of life by regularly blowing into what’s known by some older users as a “mouth harp.”
One related disease, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder—or COPD—is the third leading cause of death, with an estimated 24 million sufferers in the United States alone.
On the third Tuesday of each month, a half dozen or so central Illinois residents—all with breathing problems—gather in a conference room at OSF St. Joseph Medical Center’s Cardio Pulmonary wing.
Medical and Social Benefits
Jessica Kraft is an exercise physiologist at OSF, but one day a month she turns into a music facilitator. She is leading the group, all puffing arduously into harmonicas supplied to them for free by OSF. Kraft said good posture is a must for improved breathing.
“We try to focus on breathing really deeply, making sure that they’re using their full lung function. It’s a different spin we throw on top of it, playing a harmonica, playing ‘beautiful music.'"
But while practicing better breathing techniques is designed to help, Kraft said the harmonica therapy also creates a positive social activity for each individual.
“The goals of it are to keep people not only socializing with everybody, but also focusing on that deep breathing, whether you have pulmonary hypertension, or COPD or something like that. You really want to try to show them that using the harmonica, sucking in and blowing out, really is going to help with that COPD and pulmonary hypertension.”
Hunt 'n Peck
One of the four harmonica players is Steve Peterson. The retired rural McLean County resident has played harmonica for years, and has been coming to the harmonica therapy sessions since they began nearly a year ago. He helped a first-time participant learn how to hit the correct notes to "When the Saints Go Marching In."
“I would say, you know the song, so you gotta find the right notes. It’s like hunt and peck on a piano. Like this (blows into harmonica) isn’t right but (blows again) that is right. So, once you find it, your brain sends you back to that spot.”
When the group points out they don’t sound anything like the melodious tones Peterson seems to blow at will, he said, “I sat around a campfire for 50 years!”
Peterson said he’s been battling breathing problems for years, but doctors have set him straight on just what to expect.
“I got diagnosed five years ago. I had 50 percent lung function. I’m down to about 30 percent,” Peterson said. “So, I don’t have any illusions that this is going to extend my life and I’m going to live to be 105, but it does make you feel better. That’s the key, whether its this, or respiratory rehab or cardiac rehab, it makes you feel better, which is the key to daily living with chronic disease.”
Peterson and the group practiced on simple tunes to help ease the stress on the harmonica-playing newbies. Facilitator Jessica Kraft said some of the simplest and easiest to learn songs are holiday tunes.
“We have Christmas songs. We have ‘Up on the Housetop’, ‘Deck the Halls,’” she said.
One of the participants wanted to play "Silent Night." Despite warnings from Peterson and Kraft the solemn carol is difficult to play on the harmonica, Lynn Scott forged on.
The group applauded as she finished the first chorus.
“You’re ready for the Salvation Army red kettles,” joked Peterson. “You’re gonna be killin’ em out in front of Schnucks.”
Scott shrugged off the praise. She said she comes to the harmonica therapy because it helps her feel less isolated.
“You meet a lot of people that are kind of in the same boat as you are,” she said. “That makes you feel like you’re not the only one, because none of my friends have lung issues.”
Winded Is Good
After another posture reminder, the players played "Jingle Bells." As they finish, Kraft asked how they felt.
“Dizzy,” replied Mary Jo Bragg. Kraft reminded her it’s good to feel winded.
“Afterwards, if you are out of breath in some way, shape or form, like light-headed, dizzy or something like that, you are doing it correctly. You’re exercising those lungs like you need to,” Kraft said, cautioning them to stop when that happens.
Bragg, of Lexington, said she has noticed improvement in her breathing after taking just two sessions of the therapy.
“It kind of makes me a little more conscious of how I should be inhaling and exhaling,” she said.
At the end of each session, Kraft asks the group if they’re willing to share any concerns they have about their chronic health conditions. Bragg said she’s struggling with the high humidity and how that adds to the difficulty of getting by in hot weather.
Peterson said the heat and humidity caused him to miss out on an important family outing.
“My family is going to see the Cubs Wednesday and I’m not going because it’s 90 degrees and I can’t breathe,” he said. “I can’t make it from the train station to Wrigley Field to my seat because I can’t breathe or I’d be hyperventilating and calling 911. So, I just stay home in the air conditioning.”
Kraft said the group is looking to expand the harmonica therapy group sizes. She said, though they’re designed for people coping with breathing issues, that’s not a prerequisite. She said sessions are open to anyone and they’re free. The more people attend, the more beautiful the music. She smiled coyly as she described the result that way. One of the therapy participants described it as “making a joyful noise.”
The hour-long harmonica therapy sessions are held at 2 p.m. the third Tuesday of every month in OSF St. Joseph Medical Center’s Cardio-Pulmonary wing. The next session is Aug. 20.
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