Jaye Budd, Executive Director of the Alchemy Sky Foundation, talks about the Singing with Parkinson's choir during practice at Renaissance Senior Living Facility, Wednesday, September 19, 2018. Singing with Parkinson's is a choir group started by the Alchemy Sky Foundation and led by The George Center. The choir, which rehearses on Wednesday at the Renaissance Senior Living Facility, is open to individuals at any stage of the disease and their caregivers. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Choir helps people with Parkinson’s disease reclaim part of their lives

Mike Shortal tackles the articulation exercises with the determination of a former Navy officer.

The exercises improve the clarity of his speech and help strengthen his voice.

“Do mi mi, mi sol sol, re fa fa, la ti ti”

In 2011, Shortal, a retired entrepreneur, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder.

Over the years, the 91-year-old Sandy Springs man’s voice has gotten weaker, and he’s developed tremors.

“I was devastated,” said Shortal, who was a member of the Cathedral Choral Society for three decades.

After his diagnosis, Shortal feared that he might lose the ability to sing, something he’s enjoyed for most of his life.

Now, he’s making music again.

Shortal is a member of a therapeutic choral program open to anyone with Parkinson’s and their caregivers.

Music therapist Claire Morison, of the George Center, leads a group of individuals with Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers in a vocal warmup exercise during choir rehearsal. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The choir, which was formed in April by the Alchemy Sky Foundation, is designed to help older adults living with Parkinson’s disease improve their quality of life.

People with Parkinson’s often experience difficulty in swallowing. Experts say singing can help strengthen the muscles that control swallowing and respiratory function as well as improve mood and reduce stress and depression.

“This gets them reacquainted with their musical passion,” said musician Jaye Budd, executive director and founder of the 4-year-old Alchemy Sky Foundation, a nonprofit that uses music as a healing tool. “Music is part of their journey. It helps them connect with their memories and emotions, and it brings people together.”

One recent Wednesday morning, about six or so people met on an upper floor at the Renaissance on Peachtree senior living community in Buckhead to practice. Many of the members have performed in their church choirs or have some kind of musical background.

Participants don’t have to live at the Renaissance to join.

After going through a series of vocal drills and breathing, they began to sing the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Dona Nobis Pacem.”

The Alchemy Sky Choir is preparing for its first public performance, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at 9 a.m. Oct. 27 during “Parkinson’s Moving Day.” The annual fundraising event at Piedmont Park also raises awareness about Parkinson’s disease, which affects a million people in the United States and 10 million worldwide. (For more information about the event, go to movingdaywalk.org.)

“Every little bit of movement helps,” said Shortal, who noticed some improvement in his articulation and getting his range back. “It’s great.”

The foundation works with the Roswell-based George Center, a leading music therapy group, to facilitate the program. The project received funding from the Thanks Mom & Dad Fund of Atlanta, a charity that supports programs and services for the aging population.

There is no cure for Parkinson’s, and the root cause remains largely unknown.

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Men are more likely to develop Parkinson’s than women, according to the Miami-based Parkinson’s Foundation.

Incidence also increases with age. People usually develop Parkinson’s around age 60 or older, and symptoms usually develop slowly over the years.

The progression of symptoms may vary by individual. For instance, there may be issues with tremors, speech, balance, gait and rigidity in the limbs. Movements may slow over time.

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Celebrities and politicians such as Michael J. Fox, Sen. Johnny Isakson, Alan Alda, Maurice White and Linda Ronstadt have spoken publicly about living with the disease.

Legendary singer, songwriter and musician Neil Diamond recently announced he would retire from touring after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Choir member Rande McCammack, 70, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2017.

McCammack, a retired high school teacher and basketball coach, knew something was wrong when he fell into a depression.

His diagnosis brought some relief, because his illness now had a name.

McCammack, a baritone who sang in his church choir and once had the lead in “Oklahoma!” in high school, tries to exercise regularly, which has been shown to help those with the disease.

“This helps with confidence and speech,” said McCammack, who suffers from tremors in his legs.

Members of the Singing with Parkinson’s choir rehearse “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The group will sing at “Parkinson’s Moving Day,” an annual fundraising event at Piedmont Park that raises awareness about Parkinson’s disease. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Jamie George, founder of the George Center, said the Alchemy Sky Choir may be the first such choir in Atlanta, although others have been successful in England and elsewhere in the United States.

George said breathing helps with tone and vocal production. She’s noticed that members of the choir are able to hold their breath longer since practice began.

“A big goal area for people with Parkinson’s is breath support and tone,” she said. “When you speak or sing, it’s all about breath. Breath is what carries the voice.”

Singing will also help with rhythm.

Margaret Fuller of Atlanta was searching Facebook for additional information to help her mother, Peggy, 77, when she heard about the start of the choir. Now both she and her father, Hilton, who doesn’t have Parkinson’s, come and sing with the choir.

Even before joining the choir, though, Margaret Fuller said her mother used music, particularly the theme song from “Bridge on the River Kwai,” to help her with rhythm.

“I’m trying to get my voice stronger because one thing Parkinson’s does is weaken your voice,” Peggy Fuller said.

Like her fellow singers, Peggy Fuller grew up around music. She sang in her high school and college choirs.


If you’re interested in the choir, go to alchemysky.org or thegeorgecenter.com.

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