By Anne Levin
In a video that debuted last November, 55 people join together on Zoom to sing the song Louis Armstrong made famous, “What a Wonderful World.” Most of them suffer from aphasia, a language disorder that often develops after a stroke or brain injury. As an introduction to the song, several of the participants talk — some more haltingly than others — about the frustrations of their condition. “Aphasia is difficulty speaking,” says one. “Makes me slow,” says another. “Aphasia is lonely.” “Aphasia is complicated.” “Aphasia is not being able to talk to my children.” And so on.
But once they begin to sing, all of the hesitancy disappears. Words so difficult to speak appear to flow effortlessly when set to music. The singers are members of the International Aphasia Choir, drawn from different aphasia choirs on five continents. They are visual and aural proof of the Hans Christian Andersen quote: “Where words fail, music speaks.”
Prominent among these choirs is the Bridgewater-based Sing Aphasia, founded by Westminster Choir College graduate Gillian Velmer during her doctoral studies in speech language pathology at Kean University. As part of her doctoral program, Velmer built a website, singaphasia.com, for aphasia choir resources. During the pandemic last year, she was approached by Trent Barrick, a music therapist in Florida. He had discovered the site, and wondered if she’d be interested in helping him put together an international aphasia choir video.
“I said yes right away. I loved the idea,” says Velmer, 34, who has a day job as a speech language pathologist in the South Plainfield Public Schools. “Aphasia can be so isolating. If you are all of a sudden not able to communicate the way you used to, it’s just devastating. And it doesn’t affect just one person. It really affects the whole family and friends and community of the person as well.”
A native of Bridgewater, Velmer has always loved to sing. At Westminster, “choir was a huge and very fulfilling part of my life,” she says. “My time there inspired me to look into the field of speech language pathology. My senior year, I had classes on anatomy and physiology of the voice, which I found so interesting.”
As a prerequisite for her master’s degree, Velmer took a course on aphasia. “That was the first time I had heard of it, or even heard the word,” she says. “But that’s not really unusual. Statistics say that less than 15 percent of Americans know about aphasia, yet nearly two million in this country are living with it. I was so fascinated by that. Somehow, doing the research and having my musical background, I thought, ‘What about music for aphasia?’ ”
Velmer made aphasia choirs around the world the topic of her master’s thesis. After earning her degree and working in public education for a few years, she returned to Kean to pursue a doctorate. “I knew I wanted to continue my research,” she says.
She began looking into the question of whether singing can help with word-finding. “Over a five-week period, we did find an improvement,” she says. “There is definitely more research needed in this area, and that’s what Sing Aphasia hopes for in the future.” more