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Voice coach works with Parkinson’s patients

Dan Comstock speaks to a group of people dealing with Parkinson’s disease about breathing techniques and how they can be used to improve communication during a workshop at the Respite House in Steamboat Springs. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Last week, visiting voice teacher Dr. Dan Comstock spent two days working with a small group of men who have Parkinson’s Disease.

“I teach them to speak like they are singing,” said Comstock. “They have to feel themselves in their bodies and open their throats so their voices have resonance.”

As part of their outreach programming, Opera Steamboat sponsors Comstock’s Steamboat visits about three times per year.

He’s been coming from his home in Missoula, Montana since 2015, and during each stay, he also spends time working with the Yampa Valley Autism Program and the Steamboat and Craig Horizon’s communities. He also gives free lessons to the Yampa Valley Choral Society.

While Comstock, owner of the Center for Attitudinal Healing and the Arts, has been a voice teacher for 50 years, he didn’t start working with people with Parkinson’s until he came to Steamboat.

Because of nerve damage in the brain and body, dopamine levels in the brain can become depleted more quickly in Parkinson’s patients, Comstock explained. Messages from the brain to muscles in the face and mouth become impaired, creating motor symptoms that can affect speech.

With weakened muscles, speech can also become soft. There’s also Tachyphemia, or cluttering, when speech can become stammered or excessively fast.

When people with Parkinson’s have trouble communicating with others, said Comstock, they may “end up staying home more and get more isolated.”

Seeing that discouragement is the hardest part, he said. But the most encouraging part of his work is the capacity of Parkinson’s patients to learn, he said, as the disease does not affect their cognitive abilities.

One of the most important things about Comstock’s approach is meeting them where they are at, in whatever mood and energy level they are feeling at that moment.

And he has three key elements on which he focuses the therapy: animated posture, yawning breath and supported sigh.

Moving the body helps open up the vocal instrument, he said. And we all yawn and we all sigh — useful sensations for keeping the breath and voice filled with energy.

Comstock uses the same fundamentals as his singing students. And whether it is country, jazz, pop, or opera, the same techniques are used, he said. “The only difference is what you emphasize.”

Having the Parkinson’s group think more about singing than speaking “sends sound through in a flowing way,” he said. “We’re not inviting the muscles to fight.”

He also connects the body and mind with emotion and a sense of purpose, like encouraging the Parkinson’s patients to read to their grandchildren.

Working in a group setting with the Yampa Valley Parkinson’s Support Network (YVPSN), “It’s loads of fun to work with them,” Comstock said. “We love hearing each other succeed.”

The YVPSN meets the second Monday of every month at 5 p.m. at Casey’s Pond. The group also organizes Nordic skiing classes. For more information, contact ahearne@northwesterncoloradohealth.org.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @KariHarden.


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