For Stroke Survivors Who Can't Speak, 'Aphasia Choir' Lets Voices Be Heard Through Song

Jun 29, 2017

How is it that survivors of stroke and certain brain injury are often unable to speak but they still can sing? The answer lies in the brain's physiology. By tapping into the undamaged right hemisphere, the stroke survivor can recall familiar melodies and express them through song. Enter, the Aphasia Choir.

The choir's director is St. Albans native and speech and language pathologist, Karen McFeeters Leary. "I've known throughout my career that individuals with aphasia have trouble speaking," Leary said. "I also knew that they were able to sing with relative ease and fluency and fluidity."

Recently, Leary spoke with VPR about the Aphasia Choir. She said three years ago when she "hatched a dream" to create the choir for those with aphasia - a disorder caused by brain damage that makes speaking difficult or impossible -  she wanted to combine her career as a language pathologist and as a singer and choral performer.

She explained that the choir brings together individuals with aphasia and focuses on what they can do. The choir also includes stroke survivors' caregivers and spouses, as well as UVM students studying to be speech and language pathologists.

When it began in 2014, the choir numbered 11 stroke survivors. This year, the group has 21 members and is growing.

The choir meets for a few months prior to its once-yearly performance in June and Leary said it is apparent how vital the group is to survivors, spouses and caregivers.

"The concerts themselves are so incredibly moving. Audience members consistently share that they ... are inspired, moved, amazed."

All they've known is the person who can't talk at all or struggles to communicate. - Aphasia Choir director, Karen Leary on the joy audience members feel when seeing loved ones sing for the first time.

At their recent performance last month, which was also Aphasia Awareness Month, the Elley Long Music Center in Colchester overflowed with 400 in attendance.

Leary said the choir's goals are three-fold: to have fun, to exercise brains and to educate the public. She said she envisions one day expanding the choir: " ... I do wonder if someday it maybe can be sort of a bigger, free-standing organization where we can be doing more for stroke survivors even beyond the choir model."

Leary said, "It's just such an important group, not just for the singing end of it but for the community, the social interaction, the wellness, the well-being of these people."

The Aphasia Choir is open to all stroke and brain-injury survivors with aphasia, their spouses and caregivers. To contact Leary about the choir, visit here.