The virtues of feel-good music

LOVING LIFE: Anna Gabb won't let Parkinson's disease get in the way of enjoying  life.
LOVING LIFE: Anna Gabb won't let Parkinson's disease get in the way of enjoying life.

Leaving her job after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease was a decision Anna Gabb made in just one day.

The Ponsonby resident decided she would live every day to the fullest after her diagnoses in 2009 and did so by joining the CeleBRation Choir.

The choir was created in 2009 by the Auckland University Centre for Brain Research and started as a social gathering for sufferers of neurological conditions including stroke and Parkinson's disease.

It is at the centrepoint of a study led by Auckland University head of speech science Suzanne Purdy who is investigating how singing influences the brain of those with neurological conditions.

Ms Gabb first heard about the choir through the university and thought it might be a fun group for her to join.

"A couple of months after I was diagnosed I went to a seminar about brain research and heard about the choir," she says. "I like music and thought it would be a good opportunity to sing."

Ms Gabb has been able to meet new people, regularly exercise her vocal chords and take part in Dr Purdy's research project through the choir.

"I thought it would keep me buoyant and cheerful," she says.

"I didn't want to dwell on anything unpleasant."

After her diagnoses, Ms Gabb made the decision to leave her job as a librarian which she had held for 30 years.

"I decided to enjoy every day to the fullest and the choir is one of the things I do," she says. "The decision only took me a day. I didn't feel there was much point carrying on working."

Now she attends t'ai chi, regular gym sessions and the weekly choir.

Ms Gabb's positive beliefs are a major part of what keeps her coming back to the classes.

"I'm a strong believer in the restorative power of music – in other words, it's good for you," she says.

"Music is good for the brain and singing is good for the memory."

Ms Gabb says singing has been shown to be beneficial to people with Parkinson's disease.

"Music helps me to do two things at once and listening helps me do crosswords and sudoku. It's good for concentration," she says.

Through the weekly choir meetings Ms Gabb has kept vocally and socially active.

"I've learnt to sing better and my voice has probably improved a bit," she says. "The choir is good fun and quite relaxing."

Dr Purdy says she was approached last year to initiate the research from positive findings within the choir.

"A group of us got together and brainstormed how the choir was making a difference. And it seemed from early research that there were the physical benefits like breathing and the recognition of the social interaction."

Dr Purdy says the early research led her team to take out a Health Research Council grant and undertake a feasibility study.

"The feasibility study had over 14 members of the choir agree to be in it, testing them using pitch, prosody and voice projection," she says.

"The feasibility study looks promising and we have got good results and enthusiastic support – it shows some change over time."

The next stage for the research project is for staff to apply for funding and do a randomised control trial.

Dr Purdy says the results are very exciting and staff have been heartened by the support of those in the choir.

"To demonstrate we can make a difference, that there is a change after being in the choir for 17 weeks and a change in the people's quality of life is very exciting," she says.

The CeleBRation Choir is held Mondays 1.45pm to 3.15pm at the Auckland University Tamaki Campus, Building 733, Room 234. Phone Laura Fogg 923-1913 for more information.

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