|Sarah Thomas, left, a recent TCC graduate, plays the violin as Dr. Robert Katz, an assistant professor of music at TCC, plays the ukulele during Cowboy Aphasia Camp at OSU-Tulsa.|
Mert Fielder might have trouble conversing, but he can still sing his favorite ZZ Top song.
“Every girl crazy ‘bout a sharp dressed man,” Fielder sang during Cowboy Aphasia Camp at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa, easily recalling the words to “Sharp Dressed Man.”
Fielder experiences difficulty speaking due to a communication disorder called aphasia that he acquired after suffering a stroke in October. Aphasia impairs a person’s ability to speak and understand others. About 1 million Americans are affected by aphasia, according to the National Aphasia Association. While the condition does not affect intelligence, it does disrupt a person’s ability to access ideas and thoughts through language. For Fielder and other people affected by aphasia, singing can be easier than talking.
“Singing familiar songs enables people with aphasia to verbalize words without the effort it usually takes to speak,” said Karen Copeland, a speech-language pathologist, OSU-Tulsa lecturer and organizer of the Cowboy Aphasia Camp. “A song you remember from childhood or a favorite movie puts your mind on autopilot and the words flow easily.”
Music classes have been part of the camp each year, which is organized by the university’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. This year, OSU-Tulsa partnered with the Tulsa Community College Music Department to offer a new experience for participants and students and faculty from both institutions.
Using ukuleles, a violin and a mandolin, TCC faculty and students performed familiar tunes like “This Land is Your Land,” “Oklahoma” and “You Are My Sunshine” as camp participants practiced singing.
“We were happy to be part of a program that is helping others recover,” said Dr. Robert Katz, TCC assistant professor of music. “We learned about aphasia and met some great people. It was fun to use our talents and hear their success with singing.”
Fielder, of Sapulpa, noticed the effects of music.
“I liked hearing the instruments and it was easy to sing the songs I knew,” he said. “It was good practice and I was able to imitate the others around me to improve.”
For some people, aphasia can be fairly mild. Other people might have a severe case that affects speaking, writing, reading and listening. Fielder has a milder form of the disorder.
OSU-Tulsa graduate student Heather Wilson was able to put information she learned in the classroom to use through the music program.
“We expected the music sessions to be easier for the participants, but seeing it first hand was exciting,” said Wilson. “The lyrics came easily and their confidence increased with each song.”
Cowboy Aphasia Camp also provides training for OSU-Tulsa master’s degree students in communication sciences and disorders. The graduate clinicians work one-on-one with participants in therapy sessions to help them develop speaking, reading and writing skills.
“The participants learned a great deal, but our students seemed to learn even more during the camp,” said Copeland. “The students gained practical skills by putting their training into action.”
OSU-Tulsa graduate clinician Anna Slaten observed Fielder’s attempt to use music to improve his communication skills.
“Music has given him the confidence to believe in his communication skills,” said Slaten. “Each activity helps participants recall more words and the easiest way was through music.”
After being part of the singing classes, graduate clinician Amy Arjay better understands the research she learned in class about the use of music in treating communication disorders.
“Studies show that music connects both sides of the brain because it stimulates the functions controlling movement, cognition, speech and emotions,” said Arjay. “That stimulation usually brings language back in a more fluid way that helps people speak more easily. We saw that a lot with our camp participants. When speaking was easy for them, they enjoyed it more and their skills improved.”
Although there is no cure for aphasia, people learn to live with it and find new strategies for communicating. Cowboy Aphasia Camp, which just completed its third year, offers training on those strategies.
“With aphasia, each person’s brain, stroke and recovery is unique,” said Copeland. “The camp gives them new tools to use. At the end, we hope they know that words are possible and with practice comes progress.”