The Path to Stroke Recovery Through the Ukulele

Recently, one of our customers asked the following question.

Thanks, girls! This is wonderful.
I had a stroke that weakened my left side. I have been trying to learn guitar but without much success. I have two guitars and a guitarlele, which is getting more airtime lately. Your approach to the ukulele and your enthusiasm has improved my life and my activity somewhat.

You have also sparked some enthusiasm in my fiancée. We will marry next year and move to a place near where she lives (about 2000 miles from where I am now) so at that time we will join a ukulele orchestra and we are hoping that all this left-hand exercise will help to rehabilitate my left arm. Do you have any experience with that? The Brisbane Ukelele Musical Society (BUMS) is very active and I have high hopes.
Thanks, heaps!

What Is a Stroke?

A stroke is a sort of ‘brain attack’ that occurs when blood flow to part of the brain is cut off. When this happens, the brain cells are deprived of oxygen and consequently begin to die.

A stroke can happen to anyone at any time. This makes it the fifth leading cause of death in the US.

Stroke Recovery

After the unfortunate event of a stroke comes a painful journey of recovery and rehabilitation.This process will involve making changes in physical, social and emotional aspects of the victim. It is normal for survivors to feel anxious, discouraged, depressed or even angry.

Enter Music.

So how can music help in this process of rehabilitation from a stroke?

Re-activates the Brain

Music, in general, extensively activates the human brain. For stroke survivors, this excitement causes increased blood flow to the brain, helping it recover by restoring blood vessels and synaptic connections damaged by the stroke. Experiencing music requires a large portion of the brain, scientists, therefore, believe that music is able to bypass the damaged area of the brain and form new neural pathways.

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Improvement of Speech and Motor Functions

Perhaps the immediate evidence of a re-activated brain is the improvement of speech and motor functions.

A strange thing happened in Sweden in 1763. A young man with brain-damage was unable to speak but astounded townspeople when he was able to sing hymns in church. When music therapy is used,  it has been observed that the speech of some patients with expressive aphasia — the significantly decreased ability to use language, often because of a stroke — had noticeably improved, both in the clarity of words and also the increased ability to get the words out.

Music also goes a long way to help regain motor functions of stroke survivors. This is due to changes in the sensorimotor cortex. Musical activities require patients to coordinate their movement in terms of temporal and spatial organization, which stimulates greater change in the brain than rehabilitation alone.

Boosts Mood and Motivation

Uplifting music is a source of pleasure. When we focus on a favorite song, we combat de-motivating brain signals associated with fatigue and boredom. When you feel good and motivated, you are more inclined to continue rehabilitation.

A study done in 2008 in Finland found that if stroke patients listened to music for a couple of hours a day, their verbal memory and focused attention recovered better and they had a more positive mood than patients who did not listen to anything.

Music Relieves Stress

As said earlier, stroke survivors tend to be worried about a lot of things. They are thinking about work, their relationships and are anxious to get better sooner. This anxiety ultimately leads to stress. Music helps to reduce stress by increasing sense of enjoyment and relaxation.In addition, calming music has been found to steady emotions of stroke survivors.

Why the Ukulele?

So we see music, in general, is a great way to help stroke survivors rehabilitate. There are hundreds of instruments to choose from, so why is ukulele a special one for this particular job?

It is Easy to Learn

One of the biggest sell points of the ukulele is that it is easy to learn. It is completely unintimidating. Anyone, old or young, can take it up and before long is able to play some tunes with it. It is important that in the rehabilitation phase, you don’t take up activities that will frustrate you more. Having an instrument that you can quickly learn and master in your music therapy is important. The ukulele, while being a serious musical instrument is extremely easy for beginners to learn. This makes it the perfect instrument for stroke survivors to try out.

It is portable

The ukulele is a relatively small instrument.Furthermore, it is light and can be carried around easily. Stroke survivors will be comfortable lifting it and walking about with it. This provides adequate motor functions stimulation without being too much of an exertion. They can also carry it to places where other instruments like the piano would present a challenge.

It Sounds Majestic

Those four strings of this little instrument produce a gentle, calming and majestic sound that cannot be matched. This helps to relax and calm the nerves.

How to Start

21 Songs in 6 DaysSo how exactly do you kick-off a recovery program through the ukulele? Start out slow, and don’t be too hard to yourself if you can’t play something on your first try. Our book, 21 Songs in 6 Days, offers a beginner-friendly introduction to playing the ukulele. It starts with one chord songs and the simplest possible strumming patterns. New chords are introduced one at a time to make learning very gradual and easy.

Consequently 21 Songs in 6 Days can be a comfortable guide in the rehabilitation process. Jenny even has colleagues who have had tremendous success teaching developmentally disabled students using the 21 Songs pedagogy.

Conclusion

Recovering from a stroke is a painful and tasking experience. It requires physical, mental and emotional exertions on the victims part in order to be successful. Any assistance towards this goal is invaluable. Music, as we have seen, is a perfect help for stroke survivors’ rehabilitation. The ukulele, in particular, is an ideal instrument to make music with.

If you are recovering from a stroke or know someone who is, encourage them to take up playing the ukulele and singing along as they play.

Happy Strumming!

6 replies
  1. Tonya
    Tonya says:

    Perfect timing on this one; we have a friend who's young (41) and he suffered a stroke 1.5 weeks ago and is now at a rehab facility for several weeks for function restoration. He's never been "interested" in playing ukulele before, but I have a spare and am thinking perhaps I'll take it down to him and perhaps get him started.

    What do you suggest, however, when the stroke has affected a side of the body and presents paralyzation (in his case, left side)? Suggestions for adapting introduction to playing ukulele with that limitation, please?

    Reply
    • Lala
      Lala says:

      Hi Tonya,

      Our thoughts are with your friend and we hope for his speedy recovery. Recovering from stroke is quite challenging and he's lucky to have friends like you who think about him.

      Here is Jenny's suggestion for someone who is temporarily paralyzed: Ukulele can be introduced during rehab and therapy to get movement back. A friend or someone can finger the left hand chords while the stroke survivor or the person who cannot move their left hand lay the ukulele in his lap and gently strum the strings. Also, the four strings of the ukulele create a chord without any fingers down on the left hand. The chord is an Am7 or C6. There are many pentatonic songs that should be great with simply the strumming of the open strings of the ukulele. Shortnin' Bread is one such song. Any of the C or Am songs in our books would also work with no left hand fingers down.

      Reply
  2. Will Dunlop
    Will Dunlop says:

    Hi

    I had a stroke 6 years ago. This put me in hospital for three weeks while I learnt to walk and talk again. I had been a very keen ukulele player before the stroke and had taught the uke to many children during my career as a music teacher and primary school headteacher.

    My stroke had robbed me of the ability to control certain movements of my body, so you can imagine my anxiety about whether I would ever be able to play again.

    The hospital physiotherapists were brilliant and, after a week or so of concentrating on my speech and mobility, suggested that my wife bring one of my ukes in to help with the fine motor skills in my left hand. Luckily I had a 'skeleton' uke (i.e. it had no body) which was therefore virtually silent. But it did have a pick up and I could plug my headphones in. I could sit in bed, or on my side chair, or in the hospital garden, and practise my chord changes for as long as I wanted.

    My first attempts were frustrating. My stroke had left me with virtually no feeling in three fingers of my left hand, so my fingers sometimes looked as though they were tap dancing on the strings! But I can still remember the exhilaration I felt as my fingers managed to fall into the right place for every chord of one verse of Bob Dylan's Wagon Wheel. I let out a huge cheer, forgetting that I was wearing headphones. That brought two nurses running to my bedside because they thought I'd had another stroke!

    I eventually left hospital and moved to Lincoln. Four years ago I felt strong enough to start my own ukulele group in the city (Lincoln Ukulele Band) and it is growing in strength from year to year.

    We played 99 gigs in 2017 and have over 50 members.

    My message to any stroke sufferer is simple –

    Never give up!

    Reply
    • Lala
      Lala says:

      Hi Will,

      Thank you for sharing your experience. It surely is an inspiration not only to stroke survivors but also other people going through difficult times. Cheers to you and your ukulele group! Happy strumming!

      Reply
    • Jenny Peters
      Jenny Peters says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your story. Truly an inspiration! I am so glad you have recovered so well and that you can share your journey with others.

      Reply
    • Rebecca Bogart
      Rebecca Bogart says:

      Hi Will,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share your inspirational story with our readers. It is a truly generous act on your part and I really appreciate it. Wishing you the very very best.

      Reply

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