It’s been called a harp, a Mississippi saxophone, and (Cory’s favorite) a tin sandwich. And lately, the harmonica has been getting called something else: good medicine. As The Wall Street Journal reports, harmonica classes are popping up in rehabilitation programs for patients with lung conditions or breathing difficulties. It turns out that playing the harmonica can help them in a surprising number of ways. That’s because playing the harmonica, according to the paper, “mimics the breathing exercises used in pulmonary rehab,” and “exercises the diaphragm, reduces anxiety, and could help with shortness of breath and clearing phlegm from the lungs."
That rings true for Larry Rawdon, a Mayo Clinic patient who the paper notes “has been teaching the harmonica to lung-transplant patients since 2013.” Larry has had two lung transplants himself, and discovered the harmonica’s healing benefits after the second one back in 2008. Shortly before that transplant, his wife, Katie, had given him two harmonicas. She’d heard that playing the instrument could help patients like Larry, a professional cellist who performed in orchestras on Broadway for many years. Larry taught himself to play harmonica before his surgery, and afterward “saw the difference of recovering from lung transplant with and without the harmonica,” he told Folio Weekly.
Larry shared his experience with one of his physicians at Mayo Clinic, Cesar Keller, M.D., and while there’s no study to prove it, Dr. Keller tells Sharing Mayo Clinic that he believes playing the harmonica “complements very well the overall recovery process of lung transplantation.” He says it “combines excellent respiratory therapy coupled with the fun and immediate feedback that you get by playing a musical instrument.” (In other words, it works.) And because playing the harmonica made such a difference in his own recovery, Larry decided to “share his love for the instrument and its rehabilitative capabilities with his peers in the Jacksonville Heart and Lung Transplant Group.” He now gives “harmonica lessons … as a supplemental pulmonary rehab exercise.”
You can watch one of Larry’s classes for yourself in this video, which also shows participants practicing a different lung “exercise:” laughter. That’s another sound Larry says he’s happy to hear. “To see people realize how good music makes them feel as patients is so gratifying,” he says. “I’m like a missionary for all the good that music can provide.”
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