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Music brings Parkinson's patients together and helps them regain skills

Music therapist Taylor Corcoran leads a drumming group for Parkinson's patients at Drury's Center for Music Therapy and Wellness
Michele Skalicky
Music therapist Taylor Corcoran leads a drumming group for Parkinson's patients at Drury's Center for Music Therapy and Wellness

Classes for Parkinson's patients are offered by the Center for Music Therapy and Wellness at Drury University.

A music therapy program in the Ozarks is working to make life better for people diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

On Thursdays, several people gather in a circle in a building on the Drury University campus and make music together. While a music therapist sings and plays guitar, they do various exercises, including beating drums, all with a goal in mind.

All of the participants in this drumming group offered by the Center for Music Therapy and Wellness have Parkinson’s disease, and the weekly sessions are a way to help them improve their symptoms.

Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive disorder that affects the nervous system and the parts of the body controlled by the nerves, according to the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms can include tremors, slowed movement, rigid muscles, impaired posture and balance, loss of automatic movements such as blinking or smiling and speech and writing changes.

Dick Smith, who is 79-years-old, has been attending the Drury music therapy sessions for more than two years, but he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about 18 years ago.

He says he’s noticed a huge change since he started going. He’s always loved to sing, but Parkinson’s, he says, had taken away his voice.

"It was hard to sing," he said. "Now I can sing again."

On this day, lead music therapist Taylor Corcoran played the guitar and sang. Sometimes, members played a drum along with Corcoran, other times they clanged cymbals, and they worked with resistance bands as they kept up with the beat.

Corcoran said the classes are funded by the Parkinson’s Group of the Ozarks though a grant.

Studies have shown that music therapy is beneficial for Parkinson’s patients.

One study in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association in 2018 found that music therapy has beneficial effects for the nonpharmacologic treatment of motor and nonmotor symptoms and quality of life of those with Parkinson’s. It found that music therapy should be taken into account as a therapeutic tool along with conventional therapies.

So, how exactly do classes like the ones at Drury help improve symptoms for Parkinson’s patients? Corcoran, who has background training in neurologic music therapy, explains.

"The cause of Parkinson's is a lack of dopamine in the brain," she said, "particularly in the area around the basal ganglia, which deals with motor movement, and that dopamine what it helps do is it helps those brains cells — particularly motor brain cells — talk to one another, and so, when that dopamine's not there, those motor cells don't communicate, and so, that's what causes the tremors, the weakening of all the muscles as well as a lot of cognitive deficits, and what's great about music — not only is it engaging and most people have a pretty great connection to music, but there's a lot of research in neurologic music therapy about how rhythm actually helps brain cells fire more synchronously."

She said they use rhythm to help those brain cells work properly and to help the participants maintain their strength, mobility and cognitive function.

Nancy Anderson is part of the drumming circle group at Drury. She said since she started going to that class and joining other activities, she's noticed significant improvement in her Parkinson’s symptoms.

"It's done incredible things for me, you know, not only helping me with being able to listen to instructions and follow directions and listen to the beat," she said, "but the caring that goes on here and the camaraderie is incredible. You know, we all became a family, and we look out for each other, and we check on each other."

Dick Smith agrees that a significant benefit of being part of the drumming group is the friendships he’s made.

"We're not longer a group, we're a family," he said.

Corcoran says there’s a lot of good in being part of a group where others understand what you’re going through.

The Center for Music Therapy and Wellness offers other groups besides drumming for Parkinson’s patients, and they work with many different people, including those with disabilities, kids with behavioral and mental health issues and patients in dementia and memory care units. Corcoran said they also work with people who have speech and physical therapy disorders and even with those in hospice.

"Music activates the whole brain — so, the speech pathways, the motor pathways, the cognitive pathways, our emotions, right? We know that music can really stir those systems as well," she said.

Nancy Anderson encourages anyone with Parkinson’s Disease to learn more about classes offered at the Drury center and how they can help.

"Don't wait," she said. "The sooner the better. And there are days when I feel tired and it's like, 'I am just tired. I'd rather go take a nap,' but I always feel better after I come and happier that I came."

You can find out more about the Center for Music Therapy at

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.