On the Record

Making the music connection

On the Record with Elizabeth Lanza

Elizabeth Lanza
Elizabeth Lanza

Elizabeth Lanza has always used music as a way to communicate.

She previously used it as a way to help her audience feel and connect with her on stage. Now a second-year graduate student studying speech language pathology at Northern Illinois University, Lanza is planning to use music to help stroke survivors improve their functional communication and language skills.

She is starting a choir open to any adult in the area who has had a stroke as a way to make friends, create music and support each other through every step of recovery.

The choir will meet from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Mondays, starting Oct. 16, at Oak Crest Retirement Center, 2944 Greenwood Ave. in DeKalb. The choir will meet in Oak Crest’s Little Theatre and snacks and refreshments will be offered.

If interested, choir members also can participate in a study conducted by the NIU Communication Disorders Department to determine if group singing is an effective way to increase communication and quality of life for people who have had a stroke, especially those diagnosed with aphasia, a complex language disorder that affects about 30 percent of stroke victims.

For more information or to join the choir, contact Lanza at 630-244-3921 or elanza1@niu.edu.

Lanza met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to discuss founding the choir and its potential benefits for stroke survivors.

Milton: Tell me about yourself.

Lanza: My background is in music. I have my BM in music from Illinois Wesleyan University. I’ve been singing and playing the piano my whole life. Now, I’m a second-year graduate student in speech language pathology at NIU. I want to work in rehabilitation. I feel called to help people get back to a goal, to get back as much as they can to being themselves, or even better. … This is a new field for me, but it’s what I’ve done my whole life with music, to connect with other people, show them things and make them feel. By forming this choir, it’s a way for people to share, communicate and tell their story.

Milton: Why did you decide to start a choir?

Lanza: I knew I wanted to learn more about how music and language can help rehabilitate language, and my supervisor, Dr. Jamie Mayer, actually planted the seed. After reading about aphasia for a class, it really sparked my interest. Aphasia is a complex language disorder that affects about 30 percent of patients who suffer a stroke. With aphasia, it’s not their language that is lost, but their access to language. They know what they want to say, they have difficulty getting the words out. Many people who have had a stroke retain the ability to sing lyrics to familiar songs after a stroke, even though their spoken language is impaired. A stroke can cause damage anywhere in the brain, but the left side is where language is affected and impaired.

Milton: How can music help stroke victims?

Lanza: With aphasia, often the left side of the brain that holds language is damaged. Wiring and connections are throughout the brain and music is on the right side. We hope to use the choir and music as a bridge. Using singing as a means of therapy can help stroke survivors access functional phrases and get their point across. It also gets them singing, active and participating in a group, having fun.

Milton: Are there many choirs like this in existence?

Lanza: This is the only choir of its kind in the DeKalb/Sycamore area. There are aphasia choirs around the world. In February, I received a grant to travel to San Francisco to meet with the Aphasia Tones. That choir is led by a speech pathologist, and their goal is not about grammar or pronunciation. They hope to get their thoughts across and support language accessing skills.

Milton: Is that also your choir’s goal?

Lanza: Our goal is to get the word out, invite as many people as possible and to do research to better understand if singing and exposure to music can increase functional language gains. The choir will be a learning event to help people in recovery after aphasia or any kind of stroke. We want people to be in the moment and have fun. We don’t want them to focus on what they can’t do, but instead focus on what fun they’re having and what they can do.

Milton: Have you spoken with the community and stroke survivors about the choir?

Lanza: I got to meet with a few residents at Oak Crest to discuss the choir, and it was so helpful to get their input about forming this choir. I want the choir to belong to all members of the group. For our first rehearsal, I have a few pieces selected to start with, but based on the members I want them to suggest and eventually vote on music they feel passionate about. This is going to be a team effort, and I want us all to have ownership of our group.

Milton: Have you chosen a name for the choir?

Lanza: We are tentatively going to call our group the Bridges Choir. Although the “language center” is on the left side of the brain, music is neurally wired all throughout the brain, especially on the right half. Music can be used as a bridge to re-wire connections from the right side of the brain back to the left; hence our name, Bridges. We hope to make connections not only with music and language, but with other community members who have had similar experiences.

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