Festival highlights benefits of music for people with Parkinson’s disease

It's more than a love of music that has clients in this music therapy class singing. Video by Dave Olson

AMES, Iowa – Elizabeth Stegemöller arranged a circle of metal folding chairs around a piano as clients started arriving for a weekly music therapy class for people with Parkinson’s disease. Typically, this would be the last rehearsal before a month-long break in August, but clients were putting in extra time to prepare for an upcoming music festival and concert.

Hosting a music festival is something Stegemöller has wanted to do since starting her first singing class in Ames. Stegemöller, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, has since added classes in Waverly, Des Moines and Storm Lake. The festival will not only highlight the clients’ musical talents, but also celebrate the strength they have built through song.

Singing uses the same muscles associated with swallowing and respiratory control – two functions complicated by Parkinson’s disease, which can lead to death – and Stegemöller’s research has found singing significantly improves this muscle activity. The classes serve a dual purpose for research and outreach to improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s.

“We do a lot of vocal exercises in classes that focus on those muscles. We also talk about proper breath support, posture and how we use the muscles involved with the vocal cords, which requires them to intricately coordinate good, strong muscle activity,” Stegemöller said. 

The daylong festival will include an evening concert featuring the Ames and Waverly singing classes, as well as many others from around the state. The public is invited to attend the concert at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 12, at the First Baptist Church of Ames, 200 Lynn Ave.

A singing initiative

Interest in the singing classes has exceeded what Stegemöller alone can manage, which is why she collaborated with Iowa State Extension and Outreach to create a DVD to train extension specialists. Stegemöller and David Brown, an extension field specialist, are piloting the eight-week training program in several counties in northern Iowa.

“The goal is to expand this singing initiative,” Stegemöller said. “If the DVD is an effective training tool, we’d like to have as many classes as possible across the state.”  

In addition to extending her outreach, Stegemöller is also building upon on her research. Through her initial study, she learned singing might provide other benefits related to stress, mood and depression. Stegemöller, Elizabeth “Birdie” Shirtcliff, an assistant professor of kinesiology; and Marian Kohut, a professor of kinesiology; are conducting follow-up studies testing blood and cortisol levels to see if there is a measurable difference. The research is funded through a GRAMMY Foundation grant.

Results of Stegemöller’s initial study are published in the journals Disability and Rehabilitation and Complementary Therapies in Medicine.