Day 6

Beatles songs and kazoos: How a Hamilton choir is helping people with Parkinson's

The Hamilton Parkinson's Chorus isn't just a choir, it's an exercise club. People with Parkinson's can have problems with breathing and swallowing. Singing helps strengthen those throat muscles.

'It's quite relaxing actually; you kind of step out of your life,' says Parkinson's Chorus member

From left to right, Brian, Janine and Stan are all members of the Hamilton Parkinson's Chorus. (Laurie Allan/CBC)

Originally published April 19, 2019

For many choirs, the focus is on the performance; on people singing on key and in harmony. But for the Hamilton Parkinson's Chorus, the most important part is just showing up.

The Parkinson's Chorus practices at McMaster University in Hamilton, and the choir was created specifically to help the vocal muscles of people with Parkinson's disease.

Parkinson's is a degenerative disease that affects the nervous system and movement. It can affect a person's ability to swallow, cause vocal tremors, and it can generally cause the voice to lose strength. And that's where the choir comes in.

Singing helps exercise throat muscles, which can then strengthen one's ability to swallow as well as strengthening the voice.

"[Parkinson's] slows you down an awful lot and it just sort of deteriorates your function in two ways, one of which is voice," said Brian, one of the members of the choir.

"You get hypophonia or become a low talker. Exercise is great for Parkinson's, and one of the things you don't think about exercising is your voice."

The generation gap kind of fades away when you're all singing the same song.- Liam Cresswell, accompanist

How the Parkinson's Chorus began

Zachary Levine is wrapping up his second year as an arts and science student at McMaster. In the summer of 2018, he worked with Singing With Parkinson's, a group based in Toronto that also works with people who have Parkinson's.

When Levine, 19, returned to McMaster last autumn he discovered that Hamilton didn't have a Parkinson's choir — so he started one.

Working with the university and the McMaster School of the Arts, Levine was given prime rehearsal space on campus and help in accommodating the choir members.

Through the school year the choir practices every Wednesday afternoon on campus. Their second season begins on May 1.

Levine leads the choir through a physical and vocal warm-up, followed by tongue twisters that help with proper enunciation.

From left to right, Parkinson's Chorus co-founder Zachary Levine, piano accompanist Cindy Cui, and guitar accompanist Liam Cresswell. All three are students at McMaster University. (Laurie Allan/CBC)

Levine acknowledges that he is helping the choir members. But he says that as a university student, he also gets a lot out of leading the choir.

"What I got out of this is an entirely different take on the world that's a unique perspective, because we have people with a degenerative disease, but we still manage to sing we still manage to make something out of that," he said.

Levine leads the choir with fellow students Cindy Cui and Liam Cresswell, who also accompany the choir on piano and guitar respectively.

Many of the choir members are baby boomers, but Cui and Cresswell say the age difference between the choir's members and founders isn't an issue.

"Even though there is this giant generational gap, I love just learning from it and hearing their stories," said Cui.

Members of the Hamilton Parkinson's Chorus rehearse using kazoos at McMaster University. (Laurie Allan/CBC)

Cresswell jokes that he had to learn a lot of Beatles songs to play with the choir, but he added that "it's really just being among friends here. The generation gap kind of fades away when you're all singing the same song."

How it helps choir members

Isabelle was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2018 and still works full-time. She says she's noticed that her voice is softer and she feels like she's stumbling over her words as she speaks.

"I hope that this singing will help me with that," she said.

You kind of step out of your life, and so at the same time as I'm thinking of singing I'm also exercising.- Norm, member of the Parkinson's Chorus

Though she's always enjoyed music, this is the first time Isabelle has been part of a choir.

"I don't know how I sing. I probably sing not very well, but I don't think about that. I just sing," she said.

And that's the point of the choir. Just to be there and to try to sing. No one cares if someone sings off-key or comes in a little late with the lyrics.

Norm was diagnosed with Parkinson's approximately five years ago and he attends the choir with his wife, a former nurse.

"When I'm singing, I'm just totally focused on the singing and it's quite relaxing actually. You kind of step out of your life, and so at the same time as I'm thinking of singing, I'm also exercising," he said.

Zachary Levine leads the chorus in a rehearsal. (Laurie Allan/CBC)

Choir members also use kazoos during some songs, which also helps to exercise their throat muscles. Not to mention that kazoos can be a lot of fun, particularly when they break out the small plastic instruments in songs like Pinball Wizard by The Who and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, by The Beatles.

"It's really funny," explained choir member Janine. "I had never used a kazoo before. And then after the first hour I said, 'The kazoo's broken, and I can't get this to work.'"

"So, Zachary didn't say anything to me [and] just gave me another kazoo. And I tried that one and I thought, 'This one's not working either.' And one of the other ladies said, 'That's the Parkinson's.' That was my throat not working anymore. It was tired. And I thought, 'Oh, I did not know that.'"

Other benefits

In addition to the benefits of physically exercising their throats, the choir members say that there are social benefits for the group as well.

"It's nice to have other people who have the same disease condition that you have," explained Brian. "And under those circumstances, it's easier to try to not hide what you're not able to do."

You feel you're not alone with this disease.- Isabelle, member of the Parkinson's Chorus

Although she's only been with the choir for a few weeks, Isabelle agrees.

"What I'm finding out is that there's also a social part to this that's nice, so we get to know the other people also suffering from Parkinson's, so we can share our problems and stories. So, you feel you're not alone with this disease."

All of the choir members have nothing but praise for Levine, Cui and Cresswell and their efforts in helping the choir.

"I think it's excellent," said Brian. "It's part of an initiative at [McMaster University] to have students interact with elders. For example, most of us are pretty old. I think it's giving them an experience that's valuable for their life and what direction they're going in.

"It's very good for us to have that kind of energy," he added. "And music is great."

To hear more from the Parkinson's Chorus, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.