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November 10, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Music to their lungs Music to their lungs (November 10, 2004)

Harmonica therapy helps senior citizens breathe easier

by Sue Dremann

The seniors at Avenidas pursed their lips like fish, bending over their harmonicas.

Taking their cue from blues harmonicist Karen Bengard, they tried coaxing a clear note from a single reed.

"Blow," the teacher commanded.

A cacophony of dystonic sounds filled the classroom, some bleating chords, others hitting that single, striven-for note.

"Success!," Bengard said.

The seniors grinned.

This fledgling group of harmonica players doesn't entertain fantasies of becoming the next Sonny Boy Williamson, or any other great blues harmonica player. But if they can get through "On Top of Old Smokey," they'll be thrilled.

People in the Avenidas class have chronic lung conditions, such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), asthma and cancer. They often have trouble taking air in, or blowing out.

The new class, "Harmonica for People with Lung Problems," helps build lung capacity. "Blowing," pushing air out into the instrument, and "drawing," or sucking air in, patients learn to control and strengthen breathing. It's like body-building for the lungs. With practice, they'll get through an entire song, and improve their breathing.

The trick to harmonica playing is to hold in the air long enough to play a phrase. Letting it out a bit at a time.

"You have to really keep pushing until you finish that musical piece," Bengard said.

Harmonica therapy has been around since 2001. It seems to have originated at several points independently. In the Bay Area, it began as a discussion between Bengard's harmonica teacher, David Barrett of the School of the Blues in San Jose, and Dr. Dennis Bucko, a harmonica enthusiast himself and a plastic surgeon in La Jolla. They reasoned that playing the harmonica would provide the same benefit, but be more interesting than blowing into the standard devices used in pulmonary therapy.

Barrett and Bucko developed a protocol, outlining specific harmonica therapies to increase air flow and strengthen respiratory muscles. Increasing pulmonary ventilation to the lower lungs would decrease chances of lung infections. Bengard, a civil engineer with the City of Palo Alto, witnessed her grandfather's struggle with emphysema. She volunteered at Barrett's Harmonica for Fun and Health class at El Camino Hospital, a pilot program for harmonica therapy begun last May.

Playing harmonica helps by relaxing the stomach muscles and diaphragm, which helps take in more air, Bengard said. No formal musical training is needed. Although this was only the second class for the group, the seniors said they were already breathing easier. A lung cancer survivor, Flora Finney has been on oxygen for 10 years. She has had pulmonary embolisms and part of a lung was removed, but it isn't stopping her.

"I'm here to increase my lung capacity. It's already helped with breathing better. I concentrate to get the air into my lungs," she said.

Not everyone came for therapeutic reasons. Jeanne Murphy just thought it would be fun.

"When I came here and saw people with oxygen tanks and tubes, I thought I was in the clinic. Then I found out people were here to improve their breathing. I thought, 'what a wonderful story.'"

Aldonna Burns also has a hard time drawing in breath. But while she came for healing, she has harmonica in her blood. Her dad used to play.

The first thing students have to master is blowing a single, clear note. The seniors cupped a hand over one ear. With hearing aids in, it's sometimes difficult to hear oneself play. Bengard gently corrected those who weren't able to isolate the single notes.

"I'm not hearing anything from you," she said, singling out Margery Brandt.

"I thought I sounded beautiful. I think I was hearing someone else's notes," Brandt said, setting the group chuckling.

A petite, spunky woman with soft gray hair, it's her first class. A member of Avenidas' Better Breathers group, she has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Brandt joined up because she thought playing harmonica would help with breathing in and out. "This is my first day. I don't know why I'm opening my big mouth." More titters.

Bengard played a tape with selections from Howlin' Wolf's blues recordings --inspiration for the class. But she teaches the class folk songs, because they have more "blow" notes. "It's harder for people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease to blow out." Blues harmonica has more draw notes - sucking in air through the instrument's comb.

She recommended the class practice trying to blow that single note five minutes each day, then practice going up and down the scale, blowing and drawing in air. The sessions run only four short weeks, much to the disappointment of a number of the students. They'd like to keep learning.

Murphy plans on picking up tips from her grandson, a musician who plays harmonica. She may even jam with him, she said. But that may take awhile. Next week, she'll be playing "On Top of Old Smokey."

E-mail staff writer Sue Dremann at

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