Harmonicas Help Alleviate The Breathing Blues For Some

By Annika Cline
Published: Tuesday, December 15, 2015 - 4:19pm
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(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Harmonica instructor Larry Regen shows a regular harmonica (right) and a medical harmonica developed by Dr. John Schaman.

You don’t usually breathe in a 3/4 time signature, unless of course you’re playing a waltz on the harmonica. A waltz tune drifted from the Sun City “Better Breathers” group during their past meeting. The group is just what it sounds like; They meet once a month to talk about breathing better. In the past meeting, that involved a harmonica lesson with instructor Larry Regen.

“You play from your stomach, because you want to draw that air as far down as you can,” Regen instructed.

All members of the group have some variation of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD. It’s a progressive disease that makes it harder to breathe.

“It’s almost like breathing through a straw,” said respiratory therapist Rochelle Swenson. “Not a big one, like a little coffee stirrer straw. So that’s what it feels like to them.”

For James Pier, it means barely being able to bend down and tie his shoes without getting short of breath. But, he said the harmonica, along with other treatment options, has helped him. He’s been playing for about a month now.

“The first night I played it I was just playing chords for about 10 or 15 minutes just because I liked the sound, and it was a pleasant thing,” Pier said. “When I woke up the next morning, I felt different. I felt relaxed, and I just felt good, and all of the sudden I realized that I was breathing easier.”

Pier and his fellow Better Breathers run through harmonica exercises that are nothing short of a power workout for the lungs, like one exercise aptly named “the train.”

The methods the Better Breathers are using today were developed by Dr. John Schaman, a cardiac specialist in Ontario, who was trying to find some way to get his patients to better exercise their lungs.

“We stumbled across the harmonica because it’s the only instrument in the world that makes sound when you draw or inhale,” Schaman said. “After 30 seconds to a minute of doing that at a fast speed, you can actually feel the muscles of breathing having had a workout.”

Of course, like any workout, you have to do it regularly to get results. Glo Williams has been struggling with COPD for a while, but she’s been playing the harmonica for a year now and practices every day.

“I was a farmer. I smoked,” Williams said, laughing. “All those things, you know, take your lungs down.”

“I can now, you know, walk, like say a mile and a half without using an inhaler. Which, before I had to use an inhaler just to start out,” Williams said.

That’s not to say she’s throwing all other treatment options out the window. But she said this one is a lot more fun.

“Oh, I love it,” Williams said. “I can breathe. It’s a big thing. And, you know, you’re playing music, which makes you happy.”

The Better Breathers plan to incorporate a harmonica lesson into the tail end of every meeting. Even with daily practice, it’s no cure. In fact, there is no cure for COPD, yet. But the harmonica is one way to stay in tune with their breathing.

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