“Play three verses of 'Oh! Susanna' and call me in the morning.”
That could become a common “prescription” pulmonary specialists pass on to their patients as “harmonica therapy” for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease starts to take hold. Harmonicas have been used to improve lung function at hospitals across the country, including the Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, Fla.; El Camino Hospital, Mountain View, Calif.; Seton Medical Center, Austin, Texas; and Advocate Christ Medical Center near the South Side of Chicago—an area that's produced some legendary blues harmonica players.
A group of COPD patients in Colorado have even formed their own musical group, the Harmonicats.
Dr. John Schaman, a Canadian cardiac rehabilitation doctor in Breslau, Ontario, has developed his own harmonica designed to be a respiratory tool to exercise lungs “above the comfort zone.” According to Schaman, some of the best pulmonary harmonica exercises “come at the expense of musicality.” His model better blends “pulmonary challenges with the sought-after musicality that this instrument brings to the table.”
Still, a 2012 study published in the journal Rehabilitation Nursing concluded that “harmonica playing does not significantly affect the clinical, psycho-social or functional status of COPD patients enrolled in pulmonary rehabilitation.”
Dr. William Vandivier, clinical director of the COPD Center at the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, discounted those findings, saying that with only nine harmonica-playing patients in the sample, it was an “underpowered” study. For Vandivier, hearing is believing and the UCH pulmonary rehab patients have been playing harmonicas since 2008 and formed the Harmonicats. While the group is mostly therapeutic, they have played some gigs, mostly in hospitals, according to UCH.
“Creating a harmonica group is one element that's bound the pulmonary rehab group together,” Vandivier said. “It's created an esprit de corps. It's fun and they've formed a social support group that gives each other encouragement.”