SAN ANTONIO – Playing while also boosting their quality of life, suggest the findings from a small pilot study.
Three months of playing the harmonica about a half hour a day most days of the week led to several improved pulmonary outcome measures in participants, Mary Hart, RRT, MS, of Baylor Scott & White Health in Dallas, reported at the annual meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians.
Ms. Hart played a bit of harmonica during her presentation to demonstrate how playing can help with breathing.
“The harder I push with my diaphragm, the louder I was blowing,” she told attendees. “There’s actually a different amount of effort that you have to use to create sounds with using the harmonica notes.”
Hart said her team found a news article from 1999 about the benefits of playing harmonica, and they became interested in exploring whether it might be a helpful adjunct to respiratory therapy.
Though some previous research has explored potential benefits of harmonica playing in patients with lung disease, one study was too short to demonstrate significant improvement and the other looked at multiple different pulmonary conditions, Ms. Hart said.
The cohort study began with 14 former smokers, average age 72 years, who had completed pulmonary rehabilitation at least 6 months prior to joining the “Harmaniacs,” as the group eventually called themselves.
All participants received a harmonica, an instruction booklet with audio and video supplements, and sheet music for a harmonica in the key of C.
They attended a 2-hour group session once a week with a respiratory therapist and music therapist. The classes focused initially on breathing and relaxation techniques, pacing, and basic harmonica instruction, but the amount of actual playing time increased as the 12-week course went on. Participants were expected to practice their playing for at least a half hour 5 days a week at home.
The group began with the songs “Taps” and “Happy Birthday” because these songs were easy to play. Then they added a song each week, such as “America the Beautiful” and “You Are My Sunshine,” then seasonal favorites such as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Silent Night,” and easy pop tunes.
The researchers measured both respiratory and quality of life outcomes. Assessments included spirometry, the Six Minute Walk Test, maximal inspiratory pressure (MIP) and maximal expiratory pressure (MEP), the COPD Assessment Test, the modified Medical Research Council Dyspnea Scale, the Patient Health Questionnaire for depression, the St. George’s Respiratory Questionnaire for quality of life, perceived exertion using the Borg scale and assessments by the respiratory therapist and music therapist.
The music therapist listened to and documented participants’ “stories about how they felt about life living with COPD,” and Ms. Hart and her colleagues conducted a respiratory assessment that included data on medication management, adherence to medication, previous hospitalizations and length of stay, perceived shortness of breath, and daily living activities.
In addition to those assessments, the researchers collected data on the length of practice sessions, Borg scores before and after playing, the percentage of time taken for participation in class, the participants’ ability to make a sound, their challenges and triumphs, their tiredness and/or soreness after playing, and the number of people who continued playing after training.
Among the 11 participants who completed the training and all evaluations, the MIP increased by an average 15.36 cmH20 (P = .0017), and their MEP increased by an average 14.36 cmH20 (P = .0061).
Participants increased their distance in the Six Minute Walk Test by an average 60.55 meters (P = .0280), and Ms. Hart reported an improvement in quality of life scores.
In addition to home practice, participants were expected to keep a daily log of how it felt to play and what their biggest challenges and rewards were. The comments they wrote revealed benefits that sometimes surprised even the researchers:
“I can do laundry now.”
“I am more confident.”
“It is relaxing.”
“I want to keep playing forever.”
“It helps me cough up phlegm.”
“I lose track of time and enjoy my playing.”
“I played Happy Birthday at a party for my friend.”
Others express their difficulties as well, such as one person who wrote of being “really frustrated” and another who claimed to “have a hard time playing just one note.”
But the players learned to play as a group as well, even ordering T-shirts for themselves to give concerts. The group now has about 30 songs in its repertoire, Ms. Hart said, and they recently gave a 2-hour concert during which they played all 30 songs twice.
One consistent theme that emerged, Ms. Hart said, was improved control of breathing since playing the harmonica required participants to purse their lips (similar to the way needed for expiratory maneuvers), breathe from their diaphragms, and pace themselves. Playing exercised “the muscles that help pull air in and push air out of the lungs,” Ms. Hart said, and strengthened participants’ abdominal muscles, allowing more effective coughing.
Playing harmonica also increased self-confidence. It provided stress relief for some, and others simply found it fun or enjoyed the socializing opportunities.
The study’s small size and lack of a control group limit the generalizability of its findings.
Baylor Scott & White Central Texas Foundation funded the research. Ms. Hart reported no conflicts of interest.
SOURCE: Hart M et al. CHEST 2018.