Alternative Medicine

Why a hospital has a harmonica band

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The patients amble in one by one. There’s Janet Broos with the portable oxygen concentrator. Jonathan Bulkley, who shuffles in with a four-wheeled walker. And Pat Rubadeau, whose rare lung disease has left her with 35% of her lung function.

They are part of a weekly harmonica class for people with chronic lung conditions or breathing difficulties at the University of Michigan’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program. They make music with the very thing that troubles them most: their breath.

“Once you lose your breathing capacity it’s very difficult to play an instrument or sing,” says Ms. Rubadeau, 65, who leads the group. “So when people join this they realize they can bring music back into their life.”

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Medical experts say there is no scientific proof that playing the harmonica improves lung function. Still, harmonica classes have started at hospitals and clinics around the country amid indications that the practice may confer a variety of benefits.

The harmonica is among the few instruments where breath is both inhaled and exhaled. Medical experts say playing it mimics the breathing exercises used in pulmonary rehab. It exercises the diaphragm, reduces anxiety and could help with shortness of breath and clearing phlegm from the lungs.

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