David Teslow can no longer manage a round of golf without supplemental oxygen, but on Thursday the 82-year-old’s cheeks were huffing and puffing as he played “On Top of Old Smokey” and “Wild Irish Rose” on the harmonica, along with bandmates in the lobby of Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park.
“Old-time songs,” he said.
Teslow is part of the harmonica group formed at Methodist last June as an adjunct therapy for patients with breathing disorders such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma. While also completing traditional rehab exercises, the patients gain physical and psychological benefits from being part of the band, which practices every other week.
Rehab patients need to “exercise muscles that help push and pull air out of the lungs,” said Dawn McDougal Miller, a music therapist at Methodist. “This gives them another way to do those exercises, and it’s a whole lot more fun.”
Playing the harmonica as an exercise makes intuitive sense. Most wind instruments such as the clarinet only produce notes on exhales, but the full range of notes on the harmonica requires both exhales and inhales. Research hasn’t validated its effectiveness as an add-on to pulmonary rehab, though. The only published study found no benefit in 2012 when comparing a group of pulmonary rehab patients in Arizona who played harmonica vs. others who received standard therapy only.
The approach has nonetheless spread rapidly in the U.S., buoyed by a nonprofit Harmonicas for Health program that supplies hospitals with instruments and by positive reports emerging from renowned medical centers such as the Mayo Clinic.
Miller said the participants in the Arizona study were given one training session and sent home with practice exercises, whereas Methodist’s program involves repeat instruction from a music therapist and group practices.
“We have people in this group who have never read music in their life,” she said, “and then we have others who are very accomplished musicians. We even have a band director in that group, a bell-choir member, some pianists, but what’s nice is you don’t have to be able to read music to play the harmonica. It’s an accessible instrument.”
Methodist initially received plastic harmonicas from the nonprofit program, which was formed by the COPD Foundation and its Pulmonary Empowerment Program, and backed by country music star Chris Janson, who has asthma. But the hospital ended up buying metal ones, with the help of private donations, because participants wanted to improve their playing. Patients are asked to chip in $10 for the program, which isn’t covered by insurance.
Miller said it’s a low-pressure group; Thursday’s event wasn’t even called a concert, but rather an “open rehearsal.” Still, the group has standards. A group rendition of the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” was pulled from Thursday’s playlist because members didn’t think it was ready.
“It was kind of a tough one,” Teslow said.
A longtime director of the Minnesota Medical Foundation, Teslow figures his COPD developed from years of smoking a pipe and not using a mask when he cut, welded and shaped metal art in his shop. On a drive back from Arizona in 2009, he got home and found himself struggling for air. Hospital tests found his lungs were full of blood clots.
“The doctor told me I was lucky to be alive,” he said.
Teslow manages his disease with medication, exercise rehab as needed, and supplemental oxygen. He carries an oximeter to measure oxygen levels. Learning the harmonica has been fun and helped with his breath control, he said.
“As a kid, I had a harmonica,” he said. “But you know how it is. I never played it.”
Whether through the soul of music or the enjoyment of being part of a group, patients in the harmonica program report less anxiety. Surveyed before and after practice sessions last year, participants reported a 49 percent improvement in mood and a 40 percent decline in breathlessness, according to Methodist’s unpublished results.
“They’re pretty amazed that they’re playing a musical instrument and they’re able to sustain those songs,” said Kris Mrosak, Methodist’s pulmonary rehab program manager, who also played Thursday.
Patients with COPD sometimes grow frustrated and depressed as their disorder prevents them from singing, running or doing other everyday activities. Because it is primarily linked to smoking, the disorder also can cause shame and stress. Roughly 16 million Americans have the disease.
It was all smiles and a little relief Thursday, especially after playing the “Tennessee Waltz” and “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” slower songs with long notes that require long breaths.
“Everybody get a chance to catch their breath?” Miller asked before starting the next song. “Literally.”