Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

These choir members have difficulty speaking after surviving traumatic brain injury, but they can sing

People lined up in chairs sing in front of music stands. One person at the center of the photo gestures with their hand.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
The Aphasia Choir of Vermont rehearses at the Elley-Long Music Center on Friday, June 2. Their annual free concert will be held on Sunday, June 4.

Someone with a traumatic brain injury from stroke or illness can sometimes experience aphasia, which is when they have difficulty speaking or using language.

One local singing group — the Aphasia Choir of Vermont — has found a way for some Vermonters to find their voices again through song.

Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch spoke with choir founder and choral director Karen McFeeters Leary about the Aphasia Choir, and how neuroanatomy and brain hemispheres play a part in people's ability to sing despite brain injury. Their conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: First, can you describe who is in the choir?

Karen McFeeters Leary: The choir is comprised of stroke and traumatic brain injury survivors who have aphasia, which is a language disorder. So they have difficulty with verbal communication. But they can sing with ease and fluency because of the wonders of neuroanatomy. There are approximately 25 survivors with us this year, and 21 spouses and volunteers. They range in age between 38 and 85.

That's so great. What is day-to-day life like for someone with aphasia?

When someone has suffered damage to that left hemisphere of the brain, and they have aphasia, they often experience social isolation. They lose relationships, friendships and some experience depression.

I think having an intentional community like this, bringing these people together in song, having that sense of belonging, community, it's just — I've seen moods being elevated, friendships forming, relationships improving. It's pretty remarkable how just coming together with music as the foundation element can make such a difference.

 Two people smile at each other while a third person helps dress up them up in boas and sequined headbands.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
The Aphasia Choir of Vermont gets ready to perform "Cabaret."

When did you start the choir?

I started in 2014. I was working at the UVM Medical Center at the time as a medical speech and language pathologist. And throughout my career assessing individuals with left-hemisphere brain damage, many of them, if not all of them, presented with some degree of of language impairment: trouble finding words, making sentences, participating in conversation. But all of them could sing.

In essence, they're tapping into the right undamaged hemisphere of the brain to experience freedom and ease of expression.

"In essence, they're tapping into the right undamaged hemisphere of the brain to experience freedom and ease of expression."
Karen McFeeters Leary, Aphasia Choir of Vermont founder and director

And Karen, you're a Vermont musician. We played your songs on Safe & Sound when that local music show was in production. Singing and songwriting plays a big role in your life. And your latest album,Bonfire, the proceeds from that went to the Aphasia Choir.

So even your solo career is sort of feeding into this work. What led you to this position as the choir director?

I just knew from my professional experience that individuals could sing even though they had a lot of trouble speaking or could not talk at all.

And given my background as a singer — I've sung in choirs throughout my life — I just thought, "why not bring these people together?"

We have three goals. Our mission includes having fun, number two is to exercise our brains, and then the third goal is to educate the public to raise aphasia awareness in our communities.

A woman with grey hair conducting people sitting in front of her.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Karen McFeeters Leary is the founder and director of The Aphasia Choir of Vermont.

How has the choir grown or changed since 2014?

We started small. We had 11 brave stroke survivors. In 2019, we were up to nearly 30.

Then of course, COVID hit. We were unable to meet in 2020 and 2021. We lost some members during that time, unfortunately, some passed away, some moved away.

So in 2022, I just knew that we had to find a way to reconnect. We're still kind of re-growing. We're still smaller than we were in 2019. But we are gradually growing again.

Could you explain more that link between talking and singing? And how when a person can no longer speak due to brain injury, might they still be able to sing?

For most of us who are right-handed, we are left-brain dominant for language. Oftentimes, when injury happens in the frontal lobe of the left hemisphere of the brain, people will present with language difficulties with aphasia.

But the right hemisphere, again, is where music primarily lives, so our ability to remember familiar melodies to sing, that sort of thing that's primarily housed in that right hemisphere. So that's what these individuals are doing. They're tapping in to that.

What do choir members get out of participating? How does that experience resonate with them?

Wow, there have been so many anecdotal benefits that I've noticed over the years. What I didn't expect was just the amount of like, the camaraderie. Some people came out of pretty serious depression, friendships formed. I mean, right now, 10 members of the choir are out having lunch together after rehearsal today!

 A photo of a person's hands holding an orange kazoo
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Part of The Aphasia Choir of Vermont's mission is to have fun. One way to accomplish that? Incorporate kazoos.

And the choir is made up of brain injury survivors, but also caregivers, as you've mentioned. And then also, I understand that there is some language pathology students from the University of Vermont. What is their role? Did they join in the singing? Are they there for support? Or a little bit of both?

Both! Yes, they sing with us. They partner up with members who come without spouses or caregivers. Many of these individuals have what's called right hemiparesis — or weakness in the right arm and hand — and so they might need a little bit of physical assistance with the lyric binders. Just having someone next to you to interact with.

And it's been really cool to watch how the students have given that, how much they've gained.

And lastly, Karen, what can folks expect if they come out to the performance on Sunday?

We will be performing 10 popular tunes from the '60s, '70s and '80s. Primarily, choir members will also be sharing information with audience members about how to interact with them — what to do, what not to do.

It's going to be very educationally enriching, but I also promise you, completely entertaining, very inspiring and very enjoyable. So, I hope people will come.

The Aphasia Choir of Vermont, in honor of National Aphasia Awareness Month, performs its annual free concert Sunday, June 4 at 2 p.m. at the Colchester High School auditorium.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Latest Stories