Feeling the rhythm through music therapy

Courier Photo by John Waters Deborah Palmer (left) leads Betty Eavenson (center) and Connie Poole (right) in a music therapy class at Adams State University.

ALAMOSA — Inside the gymnasium at the East Campus Building at Adams State University on Tuesday mornings, Music Therapist Deborah Palmer leads a group of about 20 people through exercises accompanied by joyful music and singing, which results in bliss and balance for the participants.

Feel The Rhythm is a music therapy class designed to address the strengths and needs of aging adults, emphasizing decreasing falls and maintaining independence. Participants do not need any prior musical experience to benefit from the therapy. The class is beneficial for people with movement disorders, including Parkinson's Disease, stroke, Multiple Sclerosis, Huntington's Disease, and other neurological impairments, and those prone to falls.

With a focus on preventing falls, Palmer reminds the class that healthy adults should set a daily goal of moving 10,000 steps and that it only takes one step to fall.

With an interest in music that began in high school, Palmer says, "I sang and played in the band, and I knew I wanted a career that involved music and medicine."

Palmer majored in music as an undergraduate at Colorado Christian University and received her master’s in music therapy from Colorado State University.

When she first heard about music therapy as a profession, she thought, "man, this is for me; this is what I want to do the rest of my life, and here I am, many years later, doing it."

Utilizing neurologic music therapy, a clinical treatment system, Palmer sings and plays her autoharp, a stringed instrument in the zither class of musical instruments.

Palmer says music therapy is a science, "Everything that I did [in the class] yesterday is all rooted in the neuroscience of music."

She quotes her former professor at CSU, Michael Thaut, "The brain that engages in music is changed by engaging in music.

"Now science can finally catch up to what we already know about how powerful music is. How does rhythm affect the body? How does melody and harmony affect the body,” says Palmer.

Palmer easily transitions from science to movement as she sings and plays the autoharp while guiding the people in the class through exercises. During the 90-minute session, Palmer leads in songs such as Julia Ward Howe's “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and others that almost everyone in the class sings along to from memory.

Connie Poole of Alamosa is a regular at the class and said that after her first class, she was hooked and described them as, "Amazing, after the first class, it was amazing. It is just nice to see other people here with movement disorders."

Fourteen years ago, Pool was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. Aside from the music therapy class, Poole says she is also a regular at the Alamosa Recreation Center, where she walks.

At 100 years of age, Betty Eavenson of Alamosa also enjoys the class. When asked what her secret is to live to be over 100 years old, Eavenson said, "A lot of it is genetics. I've made new channels in my mind; when I was 40 years old, I learned how to snow ski and water ski. What keeps your mind healthy is making new channels in it by doing new things.”

Eavenson retired in 1984 after a career as a registered nurse. As for living a long life, she said, "My motto is, if you don't use it, you lose it."

In 2017, Eavenson was inducted into the SLV Medical Hall of Fame.

"I love having these classes open to the public," says Palmer, who is hopeful the Feel the Rhythm classes and the Next 50 Initiative will continue to be offered at Adams State University.

The classes are free, run through late May, and meet at the Adams State University Campus at 1202-1298 First St. in Alamosa on Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. and are open to anyone over 50 years old. For more information, contact Palmer at 970-290-5097.