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Singing for health: Choir for people with Parkinson's

Jo Fergusn-Allen stands holding a guitar in a group photo with her daughter Jen, a choir member and Santa. Everyone is laughing.
For choristers in Jo's choir, singing is a crucial exercise for health. Formed to support people living with Parkinson's, the choir has become a welcoming community for people with a range of disabilities.()

For people living with Parkinson's, the world can quickly narrow as this degenerative disease affects many functions, especially breathing and speech.

Research has found singing helps to improve Parkinson's symptoms. But the benefits of singing together can go beyond the physical.

Sing With Jo began as a support group for people with Parkinson's. The choir, which meets on Thursday mornings in the northern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia, has grown to build a supportive community, opening up the world for other people with disabilities along the way.

"One of the [strongest] things about the group that we have is that we're not just a singing group, we are a community," says Jo Ferguson-Allen, the leader of Sing With Jo.

"To have something where you come together where people know you and you celebrate together in song is just glorious."

"It's been a delight of my life to end up where I am now," Jo reflects on her work which focuses on singing as a health measure.

Besides being an exciting challenge, leading the group has deeply resonated with Jo, whose colourful career includes being a drama teacher as well as working with choirs of all shapes and sizes.

How singing is good for the body and the soul

A headshot of Jo Ferguson-Allen. She has short curly blonde hair and smiles at the camera.
Choir leader Jo Ferguson-Allen says focusing on singing as a health measure has been a delight of her life.()

Parkinson's can have debilitating effects on members of the choir. "Speaking is such a strong way of connecting," Jo explains. "You can imagine anyone with Parkinson's who hasn't been exercising their voice and breathing, their world, which has already become so narrow … gets narrower as they lose that capacity."

Jo explains how regular singing can help with breathing and speech. When someone gets diagnosed with Parkinson's, Jo says "their speech gets very, very quiet." Singing is a fantastic way to exercise because "anybody who [has] sung knows that our lungs get such a great work-out," Jo says.

Singers in Jo's choir notice the benefits from attending regular weekly two-hour voice and breathing exercises through the choir, just as they notice physical changes after going to the gym. But going to the choir has benefits beyond the physical.


Jo has seen people with neurological challenges have "a spark ignite" when they sing.

A beautiful experience early on was with group member Stewart* who had Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. "He very rarely spoke," Jo says. "[But] he was there, he was listening."

One day, Jo asked Stewart if there were any songs he would like to sing. "He looked at me and he thought, and then he just said, 'mockingbirds, windowsill'," Jo recalls. Jo turned to the internet where she found Mockingbird Hill, a song which contains the word "windowsill."

Although Jo wasn't 100% sure she found the right song, she asked the choir to sing Mockingbird Hill during the next rehearsal. "[Stewart] started crying, and he started singing, and it was the first time he'd sang," she says.

"We all started crying as we were singing."

A big but worthwhile ask

Being in the choir comes with its own challenges. The tremors associated with Parkinson's can make it difficult for people to hold a book and turn pages.

Jo solved some of these problems by using the projector to display the music, taking requests on the fly and considerably expanding the choir's repertoire. "So we have a list that people can peruse," she says, adding "our repertoire now is about 360 songs."

With her ear for melody and skill playing the guitar, Jo can get people's song requests up and running pretty easily. "What we sing in a session is entirely based on what people want to sing," Jo explains. "As people arrive, they grab the song lists, they look through, and they write down their requests."

There's just one catch: "you get your own request," Jo says, "but that means you have to put up with everyone else's. And that becomes part of the fun."

Opening up the world for other people with disabilities

Despite negotiating several challenges in the last several years, including COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and accessing funding, Jo's choir is going from strength to strength. "We've now moved from [an exclusive Parkinson's group] to being a community-based group," Jo says, "and it's opened this world for anyone who wants to join us to join us."

Although the choir has grown to include other people with physical and neurological conditions, the group maintains its focus on health. "We've got people with MS, we've got people who are physically disabled, we've got people with dementia, we've also got people who just wanted to come and sing," Jo shares.

Jo knows the power of music to connect the community is even more important for people with disabilities. One of the things that stands out for Jo is how choristers check in on members who are absent because of illness.

"If we know one of our gang isn't there, and we know why, it's a very big tradition that we have to sing a song for them," Jo says. "my phone comes out and I press record."

The choir has just sung a special song, Yellow rose of Texas, for a group member who's having a hard time. "I say 'we're going to sing one of your favourites'," she says, and then sends the video.

*name has been changed for privacy.