Thursday, June 23, 2011
Parkinson’s and Voice: Express Yourself
When you were a child it is likely that your parents told you it was impolite to stare at others, and yet, staring at faces is exactly what I have been doing since returning home from the Midwest Parkinsons Disease Conference in Iowa last week.
While at the conference, I conducted a Voice Aerobics™ class. The class was well attended, and participants followed along, but I couldn’t’ tell if they were enjoying themselves. Like any “performer”, when conducting a class or providing a seminar, I look for feedback to know if people are having fun, that the information is clear and meaningful, and that the audience engaged. But, I couldn’t find the feedback in my participants faces. At one point, I anxiously pleaded: “c’mon, Iowans, smile at me and let me know you are having fun.” Of course, once I had the opportunity to talk one on one with class participants, they were very kind and generous with their feedback.
Facial expressions, along with body gestures, are an important part of our day to day non-verbal communication with others, and even fleeting changes in expression can convey inner secrets about our emotional and physical states. How we use our non-verbal body language can also impact the quality of our relationships. So, the changes in facial expression that are associated with the bradykinesia ( stiffness/slowness) of Parkinson’s Disease (PD) are an important consideration when addressing changes in verbal communication such as the speech and voice symptoms that often accompany PD. I didn’t have many novel suggestions when asked the question: “how do we improve expression in our faces?”
So, I’ve been wondering , since returning home, how different, really were the faces in my class from other healthy adults? While working out at the gym yesterday morning, I studied the faces and the movements of others, young and old. The teenage boys seemed the most expressive. Even when they were not actively engaged in exercise, they were moving, twitching, fidgeting, hats off and on, fists open and closed and eyebrows and mouths in a dance of movement. The older men clearly moved more slowly and their faces had less expression, but once engaged in conversation, their arms and faces , too, seemed to gather more momentum, though never quite matching the young boys. So, I concluded , that even among the general adult population, expressive facial gestures may be tempered over time when compared to the exuberance of our youth. That was, until, yesterday afternoon, when I witnessed a communication environment that challenged this conclusion.
Yesterday afternoon, I attended a lunch time benefit held to support a local agency, Hearing Impaired Persons. With just over 90 people in attendance, and most of them older adults, at least half were deaf, and communicating in sign language. While waiting for a friend to arrive, I sat and watched, a couple’s conversation, trying not to be too conspicuous with my research. But hands, eyes, cheeks, and lips mouthing silent words were all moving. With my limited understanding of sign language , I picked up something about “a father”, “sick,” ,”home” faces happy, then sad. I sat mesmerized by the conversation that was taking place and the constant shift in facial expression and emotion. As I looked around the restaurant, I wondered how so many silent voices could fill the room with so much energy. When I mentioned my observation to my friend who runs the agency, she smiled, and said, “of course, it’s ALL communication, the facial expressions, the hands, the mouthing of words.”
When Parkinson’s stiffens and stifles movement, including facial expression we must draw from all parts of our body. Pulling energy from within and without, and powering our voices with movement the “ahs” are bigger when arms are outstretched, the “ees” prettier when teeth are showing, and faces friendlier when moved to smile.
So try this simple little task and judge if the movement enlivens your voice, improves your posture and brings more expression to your face:
While sitting on the edge of the bed, or the toilet, or a chair, first with arms resting on your thighs, vocalize MMMMWOW! Feel the energy of your voice powered by your breath, supported by your abdominal muscles, traveling through your voice box, resonating on your lips, and charging out of your wide open mouth. Take a new breath and repeat 5 times.
Now, repeat again, but this time, as your voice rises from within, raise your arms up high like you just won the biggest prize and vocalize MMMMWOW! With arms outstretched over your head, notice your posture lifted from your abdominals, feel your mouth and eyes wide open in surprise. Sense the emotion the words convey.
Repeat five times.