Let’s be real. Inhaling and exhaling on a ping-pong ball apparatus or performing other daily breathing exercises can be hum-drum.

Pick up the melody from “hum,” and the beat from “drum,” and we’re getting closer to what an innovative program at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital is doing for patients who have lung conditions.

It’s injecting music, laughter and fun into a monthly class that not only teaches how to play the harmonica, but improves breathing with every beat.

While students are busy playing the melody, their lungs are at work performing an almost invisible bass line, growing stronger with each breath they take.

Spectrum Health respiratory therapist Nancy Wall said the therapeutic effects of playing harmonica are amazing.

“I think people are more inclined to do this than do those breathing exercises that aren’t so fun,” Wall said. “Music is uplifting and it makes it enjoyable. Like with breathing exercises, the reed (in the harmonica) provides resistance. This strengthens your diaphragm, helps you cough up mucus and it’s also fun.”

There’s more.

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Harmonica hints from Jerry Kooistra

  • Purchase a good harmonica in the key of C.
  • Avoid slouching.
  • Hold the harmonica with the numbers up. Slide the harmonica between your index finger and thumb on left hand. Start with holes 4-7. Both blow and draw. This is home base for your harmonica.
  • Practice placing your hand on your stomach and feeling your diaphragm, pushing it away from your body. Practice this regularly as diaphragm breathing is the critical component of harmonica playing.
  • Single note playing is your ultimate goal. You will need to find the method that works for you. But get comfortable with your harmonica first.
  • Consider purchasing a good instruction book such as “Play Harmonica Today” by Hal Leonard, “Instant Harmonica” by David McKelvy, or “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing the Harmonica” by William Melton & Randy Weinstein.
  • Listen to harmonica music. Hum the music to yourself and learn to play by ear the music you are humming.
  • Practice exercises that engage and strengthen the lungs, playing train chugging sounds, playing a single note and then lengthening the duration of the note.
  • Don’t sweat playing a wrong note here and there. The pros do it. Seek out other harmonica players and jam with them as much as possible. You will make new friends when you play the harmonica.
  • Learn scales and play them on a regular basis. Practicing the basics reinforces good habits and never goes out of style.
  • Challenge yourself to learn and play more difficult songs and techniques. You will be surprised what you can do.

“It’s good exercise and increases blood flow to the brain, which in turn helps memory. It’s just an exciting thing to do for your health.”

‘Everyone needs to breathe’

Instructor Jerry Kooistra stood in front of the class of 17 during a recent session, explaining how to perform a 1-2-3 draw, 1-2-3 blow riff.

Kooistra held his hand on his stomach to demonstrate the breathing technique.

“Make your stomach go,” he said. “Really hard—draw, draw, blow, blow. Give it power, then ease up.”

The class chimed in unison, with a chugging train kind of tune.

Student Connie Perry of Holland, Michigan, sat upright in her chair, throwing in train whistle sounds.

Wall stood at the front of the room, plucking on a primitive washtub bass.

What was once a bunch of individuals with breathing problems, suddenly, but not breathlessly, melded into a band.

Perry, part of the class since May, suffers from asthma and latex allergies, which constrict her airway.

“This is fun because I’m learning something new,” Perry said, sitting at a back row table in the sunny DeWitt Professional building conference room C. “Everyone is friendly and very encouraging of one another. And, obviously, the whole reason we’re here is to breathe better. Breathing doesn’t know an age. Even though I’m the youngest in the class, it doesn’t matter. Everyone needs to breathe. Everyone can benefit from this.”

Perry doesn’t enjoy doing breathing exercises alone, but practicing her harmonica at home is music to her ears. She may be performing an “Oh! Susanna” solo at an upcoming recital.

“It’s fun being in a group and learning together,” she said. “I would never think to do this (learn to play harmonica) on my own.”

Instructors Jim Rozeboom and Mike Olszewski took turns tuning up the students.

“Once you can play a single note you are on your way to playing a melody,” Rozeboom told the class. “You can do that by puckering up like a kiss or pretend you’re drinking through a straw.”

He asked for a volunteer to play “Oh! Susanna.”

Perry quickly raised her hand and piped out the tune.

“Excellent, excellent,” Rozeboom praised.

He next guided the class through “Jingle Bells.”

Aloha Meyer blew and drew, then put her head down on her sheet music in uproarious laughter.

“I can’t do that one yet,” she said. “I missed half of the thing. Oh brother, I’ve got to practice this month.”

Therapeutic fun

Diana Kirby, harmonica program coordinator, said no matter the skill level, the goal is to have fun and breathe better.

“We have a lot of fun,” Kirby said. “Sometimes therapy isn’t enjoyable and sometimes therapy hurts. This is a therapeutic program that is fun.”

The harmonica class has already earned a prestigious award from the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, which chooses four outstanding hospital programs each year that focus on enhancing the health of the communities they serve.

Kirby is also launching a Spanish program soon, which will be the first of its kind in the nation.

“We’re just so happy to see the people coming in,” Kirby said. “We really saw the need for this type of program. If anybody has COPD or breathing issues of any kind they’re struggling with, this is the program for them.”

Kirby administers a pre- and post-class questionnaire to monitor progress.

Last year, 67 percent of participants reported they were less limited in daily activities and coughed less, 56 percent said they had more energy and slept more soundly and 44 percent use less oxygen than before the class.

“I spoke with a lady who performed a whistling song for us,” Kirby said. “She was so excited that, for the first time in 20 years, she could whistle again. We’ve heard many, many more statements from participants saying, ‘I can breathe better now, I can sleep better now, I wake up more cheerful.’ It is so gratifying.”

‘I can’t wait’

Not only is Pat Six gratified with the program, it’s helped him dial down his oxygen consumption.

The Jenison, Michigan, man is on oxygen 24/7 after being diagnosed with emphysema in 2000. But since playing the harmonica, he’s decreased the dial on his oxygen tank from 4 to 2.

He’s in his second year of attending the harmonica class, which meets monthly. He plans to be back for the next session, too, which begins in May.

“I can tell after I play for about 10 minutes that I feel opened up,” Six said. “It feels like I can breathe deeper. I think it really helps in opening the airways up. The more air I take in, the better I feel.”

Six recently placed 29 edging stones in his landscaping, something he says he never would have been able to accomplish a few years ago.

“There was a lot of bending over and usually when I bend over I can’t get much air,” he said. “I was able to breathe deeper while doing it. I attribute that to exercise and the harmonica.”

Six said he loves that the harmonica and lesson book are included. He gave last year’s instrument to his 3-year-old grandson. He was excited to learn they’ll get even better harmonicas next year.

“I can’t wait now,” Six said.