Singing Past the Parkinson’s Disease

Valerie diLorenzo leads singing workshops for people with Parkinson’s disease. She brought the program to Guild Hall in East Hampton last week. Durell Godfrey

Regina Foley of Montauk never knew anyone with Parkinson’s disease, and so, she said, it wasn’t even a thought in her mind before her recent diagnosis took her by surprise. Nor did she know what to expect when someone at the wellness center at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital suggested she try the 10-week Sing Out Loud workshop that Valerie diLorenzo, an accomplished performer and voice teacher, is conducting right now at Guild Hall specifically for people living with Parkinson’s.

“But when I walked in the door there, Valerie greeted me very kindly and affectionately, she gave me a hug, and I just felt so comfortable and so welcome by everyone there,” Ms. Foley said. “I’m not a singer. But I sang along, and I fit right in. I usually don’t get too excited about things, but this — I mean, my daughters were overwhelmed when I told them about it. I’ve never done anything like this. When this diagnosis first happened to me, I was devastated. I got terribly depressed, and I had a hard time dealing with it.” 

“This has given me a new lease on life.”

Ms. Foley said that within minutes of arriving at the first workshop last week, she met a gentleman who was filling out some of the course paperwork and he discussed his medication regime with her. She talked with another woman who urged her to try the boxing classes for Parkinson’s patients that Stony Brook Southampton also sponsors. (When kiddingly asked whether she had ever slugged anyone in her life, the 81-year-old laughed and said, “Oh nooo — though I did spank my children a little when they were little. But I am going to try the boxing therapy. The people I have spoken with told me, ‘You’ll love it.’ ”)

The Sing Out Loud workshops were developed by Ms. diLorenzo and Lee Morris, a neurological music therapist, in conjunction with Sarah Cohen, the program director at the Center for Parkinson’s Disease at Stony Brook Southampton. The three of them relied on the latest available research, evidence-based techniques, and protocols that might help Parkinson’s patients design the workshops.

Ms. Cohen says the Sing Out Loud and boxing programs — like Stony Brook Southampton’s other offerings for Parkinson’s patients in yoga, dance, tai chi, and painting — are intentionally held in a variety of East End towns and venues throughout the year to make the classes more accessible to a wider range of people. Last year, the singing workshops took place at the Southampton Arts Center. Ms. Morris is now running another Sing Out Loud program at the Riverhead Library to better reach North Fork residents.

The American Parkinson’s Disease Association estimates that about one million people in this country have the disease, and a new diagnosis occurs about every nine minutes. The cause of Parkinson’s is not known, and at present there is no cure. The symptoms are progressive and can include tremors, frozen or impaired neurological functions, and difficulty walking, talking, even swallowing.

And yet, something special often happens when people with Parkinson’s listen to music or sing along. The science shows it. The emotional lift the singers report is palpable, too.

“What we know, generally speaking, is when music is processed in our brains, our brains respond to music in a way that enables a type of optimization, because it really is a whole-brain event going on when you’re listening and singing to music,” Ms. Morris explained. “Someone with Parkinson’s is relying on a system that’s been compromised. Basically, their brain is getting in the way of those electric impulses that tell our muscles what we’re trying to do. There’s a disconnect, and they can have problems with timing, initiating [movements]. They’re often robbed of their natural rhythms.”

“But what happens when you add music, or even an external source of rhythm as simple as a metronome, is it can sort of override, power, or compensate for that. It helps restore their rhythm and timing. It’s really a beautiful thing.”

To work the muscles that affect speech function, every singing workshop Ms. diLorenzo and Ms. Morris run includes segments in which attendees concentrate on warm-up exercises, breathing, and having the proper posture as they sing. 

Many people say the kinship they feel in the workshops is vitally important to them, too. The Guild Hall participants have raved about Ms. diLorenzo’s professionalism, warmth, and the joy in her approach.

“Well, as a performer and a teacher, I just love being with people that love singing, period,” Ms. diLorenzo said. “But in these workshops in particular, I also don’t want to treat them any differently because they have Parkinson’s. That’s important to them, and it’s important to me. Because so much of their lives is about going to doctor appointments, or they have to manage this or do that because of the disease. So I don’t want to treat them as a patient. I want to treat each of them as a singer. And you see people affected by singing in profound ways.”

Sometimes the combination of it all — the camaraderie, transcending some physical limits, the personal memories the music evokes — makes the attendees (and their care partners or family members, who are also welcome to attend) quite emotional. Ms. Foley is among them. She feels she entered the workshop a stranger and left after just one day with a collection of important new friends.

“I’m so happy to be able to talk to these other people,” Ms. Foley said, “because everyone has a different way of coping. Everyone has a story, and a problem. But you have to help yourself. I really feel we all have something in common. We’re never too old to learn something, and I’ve learned something by going there. This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this; it was all new to me. And I like it. I’m looking forward to next Wednesday.” Nor did she know what to expect when someone at the wellness center at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital suggested she try the 10-week Sing Out Loud workshop that Valerie diLorenzo, an accomplished performer and voice teacher, is conducting right now at Guild Hall specifically for people living with Parkinson’s.

“But when I walked in the door there, Valerie greeted me very kindly and affectionately, she gave me a hug, and I just felt so comfortable and so welcome by everyone there,” Ms. Foley said. “I’m not a singer. But I sang along, and I fit right in. I usually don’t get too excited about things, but this — I mean, my daughters were overwhelmed when I told them about it. I’ve never done anything like this. When this diagnosis first happened to me, I was devastated. I got terribly depressed, and I had a hard time dealing with it.” 

“This has given me a new lease on life.”

Ms. Foley said that within minutes of arriving at the first workshop last week, she met a gentleman who was filling out some of the course paperwork and he discussed his medication regime with her. She talked with another woman who urged her to try the boxing classes for Parkinson’s patients that Stony Brook Southampton also sponsors. (When kiddingly asked whether she had ever slugged anyone in her life, the 81-year-old laughed and said, “Oh nooo — though I did spank my children a little when they were little. But I am going to try the boxing therapy. The people I have spoken with told me, ‘You’ll love it.’ ”)

The Sing Out Loud workshops were developed by Ms. diLorenzo and Lee Morris, a neurological music therapist, in conjunction with Sarah Cohen, the program director at the Center for Parkinson’s Disease at Stony Brook Southampton. The three of them relied on the latest available research, evidence-based techniques, and protocols that might help Parkinson’s patients design the workshops.

Ms. Cohen says the Sing Out Loud and boxing programs — like Stony Brook Southampton’s other offerings for Parkinson’s patients in yoga, dance, tai chi, and painting — are intentionally held in a variety of East End towns and venues throughout the year to make the classes more accessible to a wider range of people. Last year, the singing workshops took place at the Southampton Arts Center. Ms. Morris is now running another Sing Out Loud program at the Riverhead Library to better reach North Fork residents.

The American Parkinson’s Disease Association estimates that about one million people in this country have the disease, and a new diagnosis occurs about every nine minutes. The cause of Parkinson’s is not known, and at present there is no cure. The symptoms are progressive and can include tremors, frozen or impaired neurological functions, and difficulty walking, talking, even swallowing.

And yet, something special often happens when people with Parkinson’s listen to music or sing along. The science shows it. The emotional lift the singers report is palpable, too.

“What we know, generally speaking, is when music is processed in our brains, our brains respond to music in a way that enables a type of optimization, because it really is a whole-brain event going on when you’re listening and singing to music,” Ms. Morris explained. “Someone with Parkinson’s is relying on a system that’s been compromised. Basically, their brain is getting in the way of those electric impulses that tell our muscles what we’re trying to do. There’s a disconnect, and they can have problems with timing, initiating [movements]. They’re often robbed of their natural rhythms.”

“But what happens when you add music, or even an external source of rhythm as simple as a metronome, is it can sort of override, power, or compensate for that. It helps restore their rhythm and timing. It’s really a beautiful thing.”

To work the muscles that affect speech function, every singing workshop Ms. diLorenzo and Ms. Morris run includes segments in which attendees concentrate on warm-up exercises, breathing, and having the proper posture as they sing. 

Many people say the kinship they feel in the workshops is vitally important to them, too. The Guild Hall participants have raved about Ms. diLorenzo’s professionalism, warmth, and the joy in her approach.

“Well, as a performer and a teacher, I just love being with people that love singing, period,” Ms. diLorenzo said. “But in these workshops in particular, I also don’t want to treat them any differently because they have Parkinson’s. That’s important to them, and it’s important to me. Because so much of their lives is about going to doctor appointments, or they have to manage this or do that because of the disease. So I don’t want to treat them as a patient. I want to treat each of them as a singer. And you see people affected by singing in profound ways.”

Sometimes the combination of it all — the camaraderie, transcending some physical limits, the personal memories the music evokes — makes the attendees (and their care partners or family members, who are also welcome to attend) quite emotional. Ms. Foley is among them. She feels she entered the workshop a stranger and left after just one day with a collection of important new friends.

“I’m so happy to be able to talk to these other people,” Ms. Foley said, “because everyone has a different way of coping. Everyone has a story, and a problem. But you have to help yourself. I really feel we all have something in common. We’re never too old to learn something, and I’ve learned something by going there. This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this; it was all new to me. And I like it. I’m looking forward to next Wednesday.”