Karen M. Leary, Med, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center, where she has worked for 19 years. Outside of work, she is an active singer-songwriter.

Karen M. Leary, Med, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center, where she has worked for 19 years. Outside of work, she is an active singer-songwriter.

In honor of National Aphasia Awareness Month, the Aphasia Choir will be performing a free, public concert on Sunday, June 8th at 2:00 p.m. at the University of Vermont Medical Center’s Davis Auditorium. A reception will follow. 

“When…I…sing, I feel…free.” This quote came from a man who suffered a left hemisphere stroke many years ago, the kind of stroke that makes it very challenging to talk. In and outside of my job as a speech-language pathologist, I do a lot of talking each day and simply can’t imagine not being able to use my words to offer direction, answer questions, request help, and ask for the things I want or need. I’m probably not alone in taking my ability to communicate for granted.

I also love to sing. I find ease and comfort in the melodies and rhythms that music offers. Play me a good, upbeat pop tune and I can’t sit still! I can be in a terrible mood and just hearing a particular song can make me feel better. I sang in choirs throughout high school and college and experienced a sense of purpose and unity in working toward a common goal—the concert!

I know there are many individuals in our community living with aphasia. Aphasia (pronounced uh fay’ zhuh) is defined as an impairment of the power to use or comprehend words, usually acquired as a result of stroke or traumatic brain injury (www.aphasia.org). According to the National Aphasia Association, approximately one million people in the United States currently live with this communication problem. From my experience and training, I know that individuals with aphasia often find it easier to sing than speak. During my graduate school studies in speech pathology, I read about a man who was long ago made speechless following a “blow to the head,” but he could sing in his church choir without difficulty. Amazing! So I had this idea. Why not join individuals with aphasia together in song, to empower them by focusing on what they can do versus what they can’t? Hence, the Aphasia Choir was born.

The brain is fascinating and mysterious to me. Why is it that a person can sing a song but can’t put words together to ask a question or make a statement? Research has shown that it has to do with the specialized functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. In most people, the left side of the brain is primarily in charge of language: naming things (e.g., calling that red, round piece of fruit an “apple”) and using syntax and grammar for verbal communication (e.g., saying “I love to eat apples.”). The right side of the brain is where music lives: it mediates our ability to perceive melodies and express ourselves in song. If a stroke or accident causes damage to the left side of a person’s brain, language problems often result. But the right side of the brain is unharmed and ready for action.

The Aphasia Choir is comprised of eleven stroke survivors with aphasia plus ten spouses and volunteers who offer vocal support and assistance. Since mid-March, choir members have been rehearsing weekly. Simplified arrangements of popular tunes (e.g., “Let It Be” by the Beatles) enable fluent expression, even in the case of a woman who has been nonverbal for several years. Articulation isn’t necessarily perfect, but all mouths are moving and joy is palpable. And I feel fortunate to be in a unique position to lead the group thanks to my profession, singing ability, and choral background.

Come enjoy this musical event and learn more about aphasia! 

Karen McFeeters Leary, M.Ed., CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center, where she has worked for 19 years. Outside of work, she is a singer-songwriter. 

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