The Harmonica – An Adjunct to Pulmonary Health

by Bev Foster

I recently came across a music program being used to help people breathe better. Harmonicas for Health has been offered since 2006 at the Indiana University Health Bloomington Hospital for patients with lung disease. It is a collaboration between artist Mary Jane Gormley, a severe COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) patient, and Larry Vesely, a respiratory therapist and avid harmonica player.

According to Gormley, “for those with lung disease or who are just congested, playing a harmonica can loosen up mucus to where it can be coughed out.”

The monthly program at the IU Bloomington Hospital emphasizes breathing better with benefits to persons living with asthma, heart disease, dementia, COPD, in stroke recovery or smoking cessation. One of the key teaching elements is “pursed-lip breathing” which creates a back pressure. Harmonica playing naturally provides this back pressure which helps keep bronchial tubes open that might otherwise collapse and trap air.

Gormley’s program is one of a growing number of harmonica programs for lung and breath support. In a presentation to a recent American Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation Association conference, a medical doctor and two nurses presented on “ Harmonica Therapy for Pulmonary Disease Ventilatory Muscle Training”  Their impressive bibliography shows a beginning body of evidence which supports harmonica playing for strengthening breathing muscles.

Lung transplant survivor Larry Rawdon knows this from first hand experience. He is sharing his love of harmonica with other patients at the Mayo Clinic in Florida. A professional cellist, Larry received two harmonicas from his wife for Christmas in 2007. He began to teach himself how to play by watching YouTube videos.

 Rawdon has used playing the harmonica to supplement his prescribed pulmonary rehab exercises since his own lung-transplant procedure in 2008. He noticed significant results. For example, his lung capacity scores increased if he played his harmonica during incentive spirometer testing. Now he runs a support group using the harmonica. Larry is shown in the above YouTube video introducing the harmonica to recent lung transplant patients and their caregivers.

For more information on Harmonicas for Health: A Guide to Breathing Better by Mary Jane Gormley and Larry Vesely, contact HEARTEAM at the Indiana University Bloomington Hospital, P.O. Box 1149, Bloomington, IN 47402.