RX: Play the harmonica

The ‘medical harmonica’ is rebuilding lungs one note at a time

Dr. John Schaman runs a cardiac rehabilitation clinic at the Ontario Aerobics Centre in Breslau, Ont., putting heart patients through supervised exercise programs to rebuild their cardiovascular capacity following heart surgery or heart disease. But lately the doctor’s professional interests have been directed toward a different kind of organ: the mouth organ.

Motivated by research showing lung capacity to be one of the most reliable predictors of health and longevity, Schaman is now promoting the harmonica to his patients as a rehab tool with soul. “It is normal for people to lose half their lung function between the ages of 30 and 70,” says Schaman. “But we know that people who use their lungs in unusual ways, such as horn players and breath-hold divers, are able to retain that lung capacity. My goal is to see if playing the harmonica can achieve the same thing.” The harmonica is particularly attractive as a pulmonary device because it’s the only musical instrument meant to be played while inhaling and exhaling.

Schaman has been running harmonica tutorials at his clinic since 2007. He initially taught patients to play simple, familiar songs such as O Susanna by picking out individual notes. While his patients enjoyed the diversion, the modest breathing requirements revealed no noticeable benefits. Then he switched to encouraging more energetic in-and-out puffing. The results—what might charitably be called “train noise”—showed more promise from a medical perspective, but his pupils were disappointed at the lack of musicality and lost interest practising. Hoping to bring music and health together in perfect harmony, Schaman recently unveiled his HarmonicaMD, a patented “medical harmonica” that rewards heavy-duty puffing with a roster of easily played songs.

Over the next few months Schaman will be rolling out a rigorous testing program to properly determine if six minutes of medical harmonica per day can rebuild lungs and lengthen lives. It certainly can’t hurt. “So far the only side effect we’ve found is that some of our patients go on to become musicians,” he quips.

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