Music to the ears: Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota singing programs help Parkinson's sufferers

Herald Health CorrespondentFebruary 25, 2014 

The motto of the Off-Key Chorale is "no pressure, no expectations, just fun." The chorale is an unlikely group of singers that meets Tuesdays at Sarasota Memorial Hospital's Institute for Advanced Medicine.

The group is for patients with Parkinson's disease, a progressive disease of the nervous system that causes tremors and slowed movement. Parkinson's nearly always affects speech. The ability to project the voice diminishes as does being able to speak clearly. People with Parkinson's can sound flat with little conveyed emotion, and as the disease progresses may have difficulty swallowing.

The Off-Key Chorale began in 2012 as a different kind of voice therapy that feels more like socializing and having fun. The Neuron Challenge Foundation of Sarasota approached two leaders in Sarasota's arts community to volunteer: Joseph Caulkins, chorale director of the Key Chorale, a 110-voice symphonic chorale in Sarasota that recently finished its 27th season; and Lee Dougherty Ross, co-founder and artistic director of the Artists Series Concerts of Sarasota.

Putting song into medicine has been studied as a form of therapy for Parkinson's patients for how it promotes better breathing, voice projection and flexibility of vocal cords.

But the link between singing and health isn't limited to Parkinson's. It's been used to help stroke patients with damaged speech ability. Therapy for Gabby Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman shot in the head during a 2011 assassination attempt, involved singing.

Singing also has been used as a therapy for chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and cystic fibrosis.

At the Center for Building Hope in Lakewood Ranch, a "Sing Along with Lee Doughtery Ross" meets on Tuesday afternoons to sing a variety of favorite music from Broadway tunes to "Teddy Bears' Picnic." The center provides programs and support for cancer patients and their caregivers.

Ross was asked to lead a singing group at the center, which she does in addition to working with the Off-Key Chorale.

"There's a lot of joy and laughter," said Sondra Schantz, volunteer coordinator at the Center for Building Hope and a member of the sing along. She jokes that she can't sing and therefore lip syncs in the back row.

Being able to sing well is not the point, although some do. One is Eddie Pellegrino, a retired orthopedic surgeon and cancer patient, who solos during "Danny Boy" at the Center for Building Hope sing along.

"I love to sing. Frankly, for me it's therapeutic. I can relax, my muscles become less tense -- that's what I enjoy," said Pelligrino. It also draws on his love of music; he played jazz trumpet before becoming a medical student and then a busy doctor.

Both the Off-Key Chorale and the Center for Building Hope Sing Along are seasonal. The Off-Key Chorale started meeting in mid-January and will end in March. The Sing Along stops in April as winter visitors begin to head north.

The Off-Key Chorale is in its third season. Every year, Caulkins has been able to hear the difference in how singers sound fairly quickly.

"By the third rehearsal, it is kind of amazing how actually different they sound. I can listen and hear the progress. The difference is really quite dramatic," he said.

Rehearsals start with 15 to 20 minutes of breathing exercises, and then move onto a wide variety of songs. The choir will be giving a concert on March 13 at a "Living Well with Parkinson's Disease" luncheon in Bradenton. One of the songs they are learning is a gospel-style medley of "America the Beautiful" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee."

The social component of getting out and participating is important. Depending on the severity of their illness, Parkinson's patients can have difficulty going places and become isolated.

At Off-Key Chorale rehearsals, "they're very engaged, laughing and having a good time," said Caulkins. "You forget these are people with varying degrees of Parkinson's disease."

Susan Hemmingway, Herald health correspondent, can be reached at

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