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.
“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.”