Each Wednesday in St. Matthews Episcopal Church, the buzzing timbre of 30 to 40 kazoos fills the room. Hands clap, feet stomp and voices join together for musical exercises and warm-ups.
But this is more than a music lesson.
This is music therapy led by University of Miami graduate and adjunct faculty member Linda Lathroum, and the common thread among the participants is the progressive neurological disorder Parkinson’s disease.
“It’s a hardship, no two ways about it,” said 74-year-old Eugene Dolfi, whose wife, Eleanore Dolfi, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about 15 years ago.
The two have been attending these music therapy sessions once a week as part of the caregiver meetings and social events with the ParkOptimists, a National Parkinson Foundation support group in Coral Gables that also offers dance, yoga and tai chi.
According to Erin Keenan, who conducted research on Parkinson’s while pursuing her master’s in music therapy at UM, music can help with some of the side effects typical of the disease — shuffling gait, tremors, muscle rigidity and speech change.
“Music gives the central nervous system so much information,” she said. “There is so much going on in the brain, and rhythm helps organize everything.”
The idea is that rhythm, like the beat of a drum or the tick of a metronome, can foster slow, coordinated movement when patients attempt to synchronize their bodies to the sound.
“We naturally entrain,” said Lathroum, who has been leading the music therapy sessions for three years. “If you are walking down the street and someone comes by with loud music, you naturally start walking to the beat.”
As Lathroum pushed up her glasses and sat down at the piano, caregivers, family members and patients sat in a circle of chairs, waiting expectantly to sing a warm-up.
Lathroum incorporated more movement as the session went on, like bicep curls in time to simple songs such as “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two).”
“Music therapy helps us,” said Eleanore Dolfi, who donned a white baseball cap with a red tulip, the universal symbol for Parkinson’s disease. “Otherwise I’d be sitting at home, not moving, and that’s not very good.”
Lathroum said the exercises are targeted at specific symptoms. The kazoo is good for breath support. Singing in a wide range can help avoid monotone speech, and warm-ups like “ma, may, me, mo, moo” encourage articulation and facial muscle movement.
Both Lathroum and Keenan stressed that this kind of music therapy — and the music therapy program at UM — is neurologic-based, grounded in scientific evidence and research.
Beyond the medical benefits, the participants find a community of support and a joyful environment that is invaluable when facing something like Parkinson’s.
“It’s like a big family,” Dolfi said.
Arlene Lieder, whose husband has Parkinson’s, said she has seen people come in with their heads down and leave with an entirely different disposition.
“When you’re singing, you can’t help but feel better,” she said.
The music therapy sessions began when the president emeritus of ParkOptimists, Carol Goldman, reached out to UM associate professor of music therapy Shannon de l’Etoile.
“I didn’t want to just go in and talk about music therapy,” de l’Etoile said.
Instead, she gave them a session.
“I think they found themselves moving and responding in ways that they didn’t think they could still do,” she said. “They got really excited about that.”
Today, the music therapy sessions are free to participants and funded by Lewis and Esta Ress of North Miami.
“It’s hard to see the progression of the disease,” Lathroum said. “I’ve been working with the group for a few years, so there have been a few who passed away or can’t come anymore.”
For Lathroum, the rewards outweigh the challenges.
“Always at the end of the session I get so much positive feedback,” she said. “It’s hard to explain — they touch your heart.”