Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me To The Moon,” echoes throughout UVM Medical Center’s Fanny Allen Hospital, notes radiating down hallways and weaving in between nurses. Yellow paper signs with the words, “Aphasia Choir this way,” direct visitors towards the chapel. But instead of Sinatra’s crooner voice, 25 stroke survivors belt out the lyrics.
As the song nears its end, choir director and founder, Karen McFeeters Leary uses her hands to indicate high and low notes—“In other words… In other words… I love—” She holds a finger to her lips for a couple beats, then, “YOU!”
Leary started the Aphasia Choir in 2014 with a dream of creating a space where people struggling with aphasia, a speech disorder which impairs a person’s ability to speak or process language, can communicate through music. The choir will perform at an annual free public concert on June 2 at Colchester High School.
Leary worked at UVM Medical Center as a speech pathologist for 21 years prior to the choir and noticed throughout her tenure that many people with aphasia who could sing with ease. It’s all thanks to the right side of the brain and “the wonders of neuroanatomy,” she says.
Since the choir’s inception, membership has grown from 11 to 53, and also includes spouses or companions, a speech pathologist, a physical therapist, and some students from UVM studying communication disorders. Twenty-five of the singers suffered left-hemisphere strokes, and one member suffered a traumatic brain injury. Six cannot speak at all—“But they can sing,” says Leary, her eyes lighting up. “I hatched a dream and that dream has grown so much; it’s taken on a life of it’s own.”
A left-hemisphere stroke affects the portion of the brain that holds speech, numbers, reasoning, and written language. According to the National Aphasia Association (NAA), strokes are the most common cause of aphasia, which affects about two million Americans every year. The disorder is more common than Parkinson’s Disease, cerebral palsy, and muscular dystrophy—but most have never even heard of it.
Choir member and stroke survivor, Bob Fredericks, lives with his wife, Diana, in Colchester and has been singing with the choir since it started in 2014. “It feels like a big family,” he says, smiling. Diana agrees, saying that the choir created a community where people with aphasia and their partners could support each other. She also is thankful to the choir for raising awareness about people struggling with aphasia, and for spreading the word.
“How many people with aphasia do you know?” she asks. “It’s a space where you don’t feel like you’re different than everyone else.” Bob agrees that singing has helped his speech abilities, though it’s been a long process. “You have to get past the fear,” says Diana, “It’s a big learning curve.”
When asked what his favorite music is, Bob says, “Moody Blues,” with a chuckle. “And the Eagles,” Diana adds. Apparently, when “Hotel California” comes on the radio, they crank up the volume.
Colchester resident Steve Lundy has also been with the choir since the beginning. The first year was the hardest, he says, the second year, slightly better, and so on—he lists one, two, three, four, five, and six, on his fingers, indicating each year. While Lundy communicates best through one-word answers, he sings full sentences in a smooth, pure baritone. “Not easy,” he attests, but easier.
Communicating with Lundy and Bob Fredericks is about patience and meeting each other halfway. According to the NAA, some good strategies for communication include keeping questions and sentence structure simple, encouraging independence and not being overprotective, and affirming that progress is not perfection—all without talking down to someone.
Leary says that the choir’s annual concert on June 2 includes an education portion, which teaches audience members tips like this. Following that, a member will introduce each song. Leary organized it as such so that “the audience gets to hear the struggle with speech in the introduction, and then hear the magic that happens when they sing.”
In addition to Lundy and the Fredericks, Leary describes one member who was a professional flautist before a left-hemisphere stroke paralyzed her right hand. Now, she is teaching herself how to play an adaptive flute with her left hand. Another member is writing a cookbook for left-handed chefs. And another will play a left-handed, adaptive guitar at their free public concert in June.
“I remember, at our very first rehearsal, you could hear a pin drop,” Leary says. Now, the chapel booms with music and laughter, as Leary and the choir members tease each other, and yell out praises for their favorite songs.
The concert also kicks off National Aphasia Awareness Month. Every year, the venue for the Aphasia Choir concert has changed because audiences have grown bigger and bigger. This year, Lear hopes to fill all 600 seats. “I love these people,” she says. “They show up for life everyday.”