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Harmonica Playing Good for Body and Soul

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Stacey Blank remembers the day she first read about an exciting new tool to improve the health of patients with lung diseases. That tool was the harmonica, a small musical instrument that you play with your mouth.

Blank works at a hospital in the American state of Maryland. There, she supervises a program that treats patients with lung diseases.

Her career goal has been to help her patients breathe better.

'You don’t realize how tough it is to live every day and be short of breath,' she says.

To help her patients, Blank became involved in Harmonicas for Health. The national program shows people with lung disease that learning to play the harmonica can improve breathing.

When Blank met popular country musician Chris Janson, he explained how playing the harmonica helped his asthma. An organization called the COPD Foundation sells Harmonicas for Health packages on their website. The packages contain a harmonica, a book of songs, instructions, and other materials.

The COPD Foundation aims to prevent and treat COPD, a serious form of lung disease. The letters 'COPD' stand for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

Other groups across the country have also been promoting the Harmonicas for Health program.

Breathe in, breathe out

Stacey Blank counts the musical beats as 25 of her patients breathe in and out of their harmonicas.

Her patients are members of the Better Breathers Club, a group with many members across the United States. The group gives patients important skills to manage their lung conditions. It also offers them a chance for social support from other members.

As Blank's patients practice with their harmonicas, they play songs, like the well-known children's song 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat.'

Playing the instrument strengthens their lungs as they create musical sounds.

The harmonica is the only instrument that requires players to breathe in and out to make music.

For seven years, Kathy Middleton has been using an oxygen machine to help her breathe. She explains that her lungs do not close the way they are supposed to when she breathes out.

'Lungs close up like this when you breathe. Mine go like this. I mean, blowing on that harmonica, I feel like I'm breathing better.'

Now, she is a member of the Better Breathers Club at the hospital where Stacey Blank works.

91 years of playing

Jack Hopkins does not have a lung condition. But, he played his harmonica in the hospital last year while recovering from a heart attack. Hopkins laughs a lot. Often, he also runs up and down stairs. He turned 97 years old during the Virginia Harmonicafest in late April.

Jack Hopkins (2nd from left) jams with his buddies at the Virginia Harmonica Fest. (C/ Presutti/VOA)
Jack Hopkins (2nd from left) jams with his buddies at the Virginia Harmonica Fest. (C/ Presutti/VOA)

The group sang “Happy Birthday” to him on their harmonicas and gave him a cake shaped like a harmonica. Hopkins answered by playing the song “This Old Man” on his instrument.

“Got to watch out for us old guys on the harmonica!” he says, laughing.

He says his harmonica has helped him breath better all of these years. He also has healthy habits. He does not smoke.

“I do a lot of drinking………water,” he says, with a laugh.

Hopkins received his first harmonica on Christmas Day when he was six years old. Within two weeks, he was playing complete songs.

He convinced his father to buy him a chromatic harmonica – one that makes sharp and flat sounds.

'He heard me playing a popular tune of the day – 'Yes Sir, That's My Baby' – and it blew his mind.'

Hopkins did not take lessons until he was 49.

He said that, sometimes, he plays harmonica before he even gets out of bed in the morning. Often, he said, he likes to sing, too.

Physical, social, emotional gains

Medical specialists say the harmonica is good for the player physically and mentally. People who have COPD often get depression because the disease separates them from normal activities. But, the musical instrument has been known to bring COPD patients out this depression.

A group like the Better Breathers Club gives members a chance to regain some of the social activity that the disease took away.

'I think we laugh the whole time. The whole hour and a half that we are here, we’re just having a great time,' says Blank.

And at 97 years of age, Jack Hopkins still enjoys playing the harmonica.

'It's been a great life and it ain't over yet!'

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Alice Bryant.

Carolyn Presutti reported this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

Words in This Story

lung - n. either one of the two organs that people and animals use to breathe air

country music - n. a style of music that developed in the southern and western U.S.

asthma - n. a physical condition that makes it difficult for someone to breathe

stair - n. a series of steps that go from one level or floor to another

cake - n. a sweet baked food made from a mixture of flour, sugar, and other ingredients

ain't - informal. a very informal way to say 'is not' or 'are not'

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