Harmonicas for Health: A Player’s Perspective

Posted on April 22, 2021   |   

This article was written by Stephanie Williams, BS, RRT.

I hate to admit this, but I can be cynical—especially when it comes to therapies and treatments for the patients I care about. When I was the Director of Respiratory Therapy in the acute care (hospital) setting, there would be the occasional visit from a salesperson who would try to convince me that the product they were selling was the latest and greatest thing to help me care for my patients. Sometimes the product would be a good addition to our collection of tools we used, but sometimes it was all show and no substance.

I share this with you is because I want you to know how strongly I feel about the Harmonicas for Health program. It truly does rank in my top five of products and programs that I believe can actually improve the quality of life of the participants.

When we started this program five years ago, I had no idea how much it would help people living with breathing problems. We knew it was going to be a good program, but I didn’t know how much people would love it or how much it would mean to them. Boy, was I surprised!

There are many reasons that people give for joining Harmonicas for Health. I recently spoke with Doug Martin, State Captain, and a long-time H4H participant and instructor about his experience with the program and how it helped him.

Tell me about your COPD diagnosis and journey -- how and when did it happen? How long has it been?

I was diagnosed in 2014. At the time, I thought it was a death sentence. Since then, I have learned that it is up to me to keep my body going. I have been living with this disease for seven years and have learned so much during that time.

How did you learn about Harmonicas for Health and what was your initial reaction?

I was in a hospital bed with a COPD exacerbation, listening to the local news when a story about Harmonicas for Health came on. I thought, "I need to try this!" I contacted the local group and started playing with them.

How long have you been playing the harmonica?

I started playing in 2015. I teach a class at the Local Senior Center and we practiced and played one hour a week. Unfortunately, we have not met in person since March of 2020 due to the pandemic.

What do you most/least like about playing the harmonica? Do you have a favorite song?

I like the way the harmonica sounds and how I can control the sounds that it makes. The more I learn, the better it sounds. I hate the high-pitched squeals when I make a mistake. My favorite song to play is "How Much is That Doggie in the Window". It is a fun song to play.

Do you feel it has helped? Can you explain it?

I most definitely think it has helped. Even my students say they have noticed improvements because of the program.

Can you talk about the mental and physical reactions to playing the harmonica to help with your COPD?

The harmonica gives you the knowledge to regulate your breathing. This especially helps during exacerbations because I have learned to consciously calm myself and breathe purposefully and correctly.

Would you recommend this to others? Why?

Yes! I have been recommending it to others since the day I started! Being in a group of people going through COPD at the same time as you is really important. This program is about friendship and social interaction as much as it is about physical health. We laugh and have fun and that is really important.

What other breathing techniques do you do to manage your COPD?

Pursed lip breathing and exercises to strengthen the muscles around the lungs.

Is there any advice you would like to share with those who are just navigating through a COPD diagnosis?

The best advice I can give is that COPD is not a death sentence. You can live with this disease. It will take a lot of work, so go through rehab and join a harmonica group. Find out as much as possible about COPD and do whatever you can to slow the progression of it.

Doug said something that we try to reinforce in our COPD community—you can live a long and productive life with COPD. Programs like Harmonicas for Health can be very beneficial so why not give it a try? Whether you want to play alone in the privacy of your own home, join an existing group, or start a new group for others, we are happy to help you get started. Email us at info@copdfoundation.org to find out more.


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  • I enjoyed our session so much on Monday, I've been playing every day since for at least 30 minutes.
    I found two Kindle books online that have a good variety of songs, so I decided just to make it part of my daily routine. It feels a bit like I'm exercising my lungs and having fun while I'm doing it.
    Thanks again, Stephanie!
    • Thank you, Jean! I am so glad you had a good time! I did, too!
      It is interesting to me how much fun it is to play, and how it can have so much benefit. We usually don't find things that are fun AND good for us! :)
    • I don't know about good for health but our dog, Bonzo, used to sing along if you made a racket on one. We thought it funny and that he enjoyed it but in hindsight it was probably hurtful to his ears...
    • What a great interview! Thank you, Stephanie, for bringing this to us. Playing the harmonica in a group, whether it be in-person or virtual, really is as much fun as they say it is. Hopefully it will be possible again, soon, to play and socialize together - in person!