Playing harmonica is therapy for Veterans with COPD

Music to Breathe Better By


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A new class offered by James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital is offering Veterans the chance to make music while treating their breathing problems.

Above, Veterans Yoel Alvarez G and Ralph Finkelberg play during their first Harmonicas for Health class.

The COPD Foundation and the Academy of Country Music for individuals with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease created the Harmonicas for Health program. COPD is a catch-all term that includes people diagnosed with illnesses like emphysema, asthma and chronic bronchitis.

According to Dave Folds, the breathing used to play the harmonica is similar to the breathing exercises used in therapy for COPD. Folds is the Health Promotion-Disease Prevention Coordinator.

“Harmonicas for Health is using a musical instrument to use the same inhale-exhale exercises used by pulmonary rehabilitation to strengthen the diaphragm muscles,” Folds explained. “Basically, the breathing exercises are pursed lips-style breathing, like breathing in and out of a straw. Breathing through a straw would be the same way you would blow in and out of a harmonica.”

Veterans who enroll in the class are given their own harmonica, a music book and literature on COPD. They meet as a class once a week and are asked to continue to practice at home.

Folds, who is also the class instructor, said being able to use the harmonica at home is one of the major benefits of this program.

More enjoyable than just breathing in and out

“By making music, it’s much more enjoyable than sitting at home for half an hour each day breathing in and out of a straw,” Folds said. “Most of the people in this class won’t do that for a half an hour, and they say so. But they will sit at home and practice their harmonica, some of them for hours.”

Besides the physical benefits of the program, participants also often experience social benefits.

Don Gilbreath

“These are people who oftentimes don’t go anywhere without an oxygen bottle. Or they don’t go anywhere because they feel self-conscious about saying one or two words and then taking a breath,” Folds said. “They tend to be not shut-ins, but stay-at-homes. This is an opportunity for them to get out, talk with one another, socialize and meet new people.”

Folds asks Veterans to commit to the program for 12 weeks. That allows them to pick up enough instruction and practice to be able to play simple songs so they’re more likely to continue with the harmonica at home after leaving the class.

Feel the difference

Army Veteran Don Gilbreath was diagnosed with COPD 12 years ago. He has been participating in Harmonicas for Health for 12 weeks and says he can feel the difference the class has made in that time.

“I feel a difference and have more endurance. I won’t do the pursed lips exercises at home. All I do is just sit there, breathe in, breathe out. But with the harmonica, you’re actually achieving something and hopefully getting pleasant sounds out of it.

“You’re getting the reward for the effort you put in, and that’s the one thing I really like about it. Even after class, I’ll take it home and practice because I see an improvement in my breathing.”

Author

Ed Drohan

Ed Drohan is a public affairs specialist, at the James A. Haley VA Hospital, Tampa, Florida, and a retired Air Force master sergeant who has reported from Somalia, Haiti, New Orleans (post-Katrina) and Afghanistan.

Comments

  1. Bobby G Burns    

    I do play my harmonica when I’m driving
    Helps with breathing exercises and takes my mind off unpleasant happenings in my life.
    (Off subject…I was stationed with a gentleman who was Lt. William Barr in 1958!

  2. RANDALL. Kent    

    I have blood clots in my lungs pulmonary embolism. Will playing a harmonica hurt me or help me?

  3. Jack Hicks    

    Any harmonica therapy available in Colorado or Wyoming?

  4. William G. Barr    

    That is absolutely amazing!! That is how I have been self-treating myself for years, never without my Hohner MS Blues Harp, Thank God for German ingenuity!!! One must give credit where credit is due!! I can’t play a lick, but I improvise all the time depending on my mood. So when you guys going to set that online class up for those of us who are homebound and never go out into public for fear we will say or do something that will discredit us and the Service we Served in???

  5. Abraham    

    do you have classes online as well?

    1. Bobby G Burns    

      MR BARR, Were you by ANY chance ever stationed at N.E. Cape, Alaska?

  6. Robert Farrell    

    Like others have asked is there any help for veterans who have COPD and live in the Los Angeles area. I have had COPD for a number of years and on oxygen 24/7 and would like to have an opportunity for getting help with the use of the harmonica. An on line teacher who could show us how to use this instrument would be great. Please advise if there is or going to be in the future such support.

    Thank you,
    Robert Farrell

  7. john r powell    

    Where can a VET find a list of VA Facilities cities that offer GREAT service?

  8. Mitchell Menik    

    I have COPD. Is there a program that I can join in Las Vegas?

  9. David Harmas    

    I would appreciate this program here in the Sarasota Florida VA facility. Any chance of that happening? I am sure there are quite a few of us with COPD.

  10. Michael Smith    

    Would love to get in a program in WPB, FL

  11. Steven R. Jones    

    I’m a retired Army veteran with mild to moderate COPD.
    I’m in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.
    Will the Harmonica classes be coming to this area?

  12. Tony D Dudley    

    Are there any classes playing the harmonica in Wichita,Ks.. Very interested if there are Thank you

  13. John A Gresham    

    I’ve been playing a tin whistle (irish flute) and I’ve seen an improvement in my breathing (copd,emphysema ) so if a harmonica is not your thing give it a try.lots of instruction on YouTube.

  14. Jeremiah Mortimer Knox    

    Any chance of having online lessons? I would really appreciate something to help me with my COPD!

  15. Thomas Edwin Wroe    

    Is this program available in Utah?

  16. Jerry Ross Stewart    

    Where are the classes held? I have asthma and COPD and have wondered about using a harmonica.

  17. Gerard Foster Clesen    

    I am a retired Navy Veteran with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. Are there any classes with the harmonica in my area? Hebron, Kentucky. 41048. Cincinnati area

  18. FRED SPELLMAN    

    Been developing some breathing problems. Think I’ll go dig out my old harmonica

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