From Silence to a ‘Din of Interaction’ An SLP harnesses her musical passion to found a choir for people with aphasia. In the Limelight
In the Limelight  |   October 01, 2014
From Silence to a ‘Din of Interaction’
Author Notes
  • Carol Polovoy is assistant managing editor of The ASHA Leader.
    Carol Polovoy is assistant managing editor of The ASHA Leader.×
Article Information
Language Disorders / Aphasia / In the Limelight
In the Limelight   |   October 01, 2014
From Silence to a ‘Din of Interaction’
The ASHA Leader, October 2014, Vol. 19, 20-21. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.19102014.20
The ASHA Leader, October 2014, Vol. 19, 20-21. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.19102014.20
Name: Karen McFeeters Leary, MEd, CCC-SLP
Title: Clinician, Fletcher Allen Health Care, Burlington, Vermont
Hometown: Milton, Vermont
A choir for people with aphasia, according to its director, speech-language pathologist Karen McFeeters Leary, was a “grand experiment.”
The first rehearsal, she recalls, was “eerily quiet.” There was no interaction among participants. But as the music began to play, she says, “I was floored. They started singing! It was amazing.” By the end, rehearsals were characterized by the “din of interaction,” Leary says, as choir members laughed and talked with one another. “We had a goal—we were going to put on a concert!”
Leary recalls the change in two members in particular. Cheryl had not spoken in 10 years, and although she has a speech-generating device, she wasn’t using it. “It was miraculous in itself that Cheryl’s mouth was moving and she was singing,” Leary said. “But after several rehearsals, she was using the SGD to communicate with others in the group. In fact, she used the device to introduce one of the songs at the concert. She really came out of her shell from a communication standpoint.”
George, another singer, spent six rehearsals with his eyes closed, swaying to the music, never once opening his mouth. Leary kept praising him, encouraging him to come back. At one rehearsal, Leary launched into the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” and suddenly, Leary says, “his mouth was moving. All it took was faith, time and patience.”
Why a choir?
Left: A choir member uses her speech-generating device to introduce “Singin’ in the Rain.” Right: For “Sweet Caroline,” choir members chime in on kazoos.
Leary was a musician long before she was a speech-language pathologist. She sang solo and in choral groups as a child growing up in St. Albans, Vermont, and is an accomplished singer-songwriter who has released three albums and performed throughout Vermont.
As an SLP who works with adults with neurogenic speech difficulties, she decided to combine her passion—music—with her profession.
Leary came up with the idea of an aphasia choir, attracted participants, selected songs, wrote simple musical arrangements, found funding to pull it off—and oh, yes, directed the choir—all on her own time.
The result? A standing-room-only choral music concert in June performed by 11 adults with aphasia, some of whom hadn’t produced sound in a decade.
Where to start?
After earning her master’s degree at the University of Virginia, Leary returned to Vermont and began work at Fletcher Allen Health Care, a large regional medical center affiliated with the University of Vermont. She worked in Fletcher Allen’s inpatient rehabilitation and acute care before settling into outpatient rehab about 10 years ago. She specializes in voice treatment and treatment for patients with aphasia, cognitive disorders and Parkinson’s disease.
Leary first conceived of starting a choir for people with aphasia about six years ago, after reading about a theater troupe for people with disabilities. “That article sparked something in me,” she says. “I’m a singer … and people with aphasia can sing more easily than they can speak. But I didn’t have the faintest clue about how to get an aphasia choir started.”
The idea percolated for several years, until a computer search on “aphasia choir” turned up SLP Melinda Corwin, who had developed an aphasia choir at Texas Tech University, where she is director of the Stroke/Aphasia Recovery Program. Although the model at Texas Tech is slightly different, Leary says, “Melinda gave me tons of good ideas about how to develop a group.”
The first question, Leary says, was “Would there be enough people interested in participating?” After recruitment visits to a weekly communication therapy group at the University of Vermont and a stroke support group at Fletcher Allen, and outreach to some of her former patients, the answer was “yes.”
Fletcher Allen provided a conference room for rehearsals on Fridays (Leary’s day off), as well as the auditorium for the performance. Leary received support from the Fletcher Allen Auxiliary to pay for lyric binders, sheet covers, kazoos, rhythm instruments and other necessities.
Leary chose familiar, easy-to-sing pieces and simplified the arrangements. With a pianist, she went to a recording studio to make a rehearsal CD for each participant. And then rehearsals began with the 11 singers, each accompanied by a supportive partner—a relative or friend who turned pages, helped participants find the place in the lyrics, and sang in group members’ ears.
The big day
The concert was “transcendent,” Leary says, “beyond my wildest expectations. It was truly amazing. The auditorium was packed.” Choir members introduced each song, and talked about their experiences with aphasia and how others can help them communicate. Leary also set up an informational display at the post-concert reception, recognizing that June was National Aphasia Awareness Month.
The audience responded with two standing ovations. And an even better barometer of success: three people in the audience who have aphasia signed up for the next session.
The event itself, however, does not measure the program’s success. The change in the singers is what Leary looks for.
“This is rural Vermont,” she says, “and we started with many isolated, closed-up people.” Leary plans to repeat the program. “What’s more empowering than music?” she says. “It allows people to engage in self-expression when they can’t be fluent. We focus on what they can do, not on what they can’t. The aphasia choir is the best of the best of what I do as an SLP and as a singer.”
1 Comment
October 18, 2014
Denise Perry
Bravo, Karen Leary! As a fellow Vermonter and retired audiologist with a long interest in aphasia, I was fascinated by this article. I wish I had known about the concert because I would have been sure to be there. Best wishes on your continued success with your chorus!
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October 2014
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