For many people, the holiday season is a time for writing Christmas cards, singing festive songs and catching up with friends and family. But for people who have experienced a stroke or other brain injuries, these small tasks of writing, singing or speaking holiday cheer can take an enormous amount of effort.

That’s why one University of New Mexico faculty member created the Neuro Choir, a group of singers dedicated to supporting and including members recovering from brain injury.

“Sometimes people with language deficits can’t find the right words they want to say, but if they start singing a song, those words will come.” - Jessica Richardson, director

Jessica Richardson is an assistant professor and speech-language pathologist at UNM’s Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences (SHS) and is an investigator for the Center for Brain Recovery and Repair. Since a young age, she’s been involved in musical communities, including choirs and bands. When she saw some of her brain injury clients having difficulty finding social outlets, she combined her two passions to find a unique way to help.

“People with memory loss sometimes can’t remember the people around them, but they can reminisce and have good memories about their lives through song,” Richardson said. “There is less pressure to listen to a song, remember the words to the song and relive the memories associated with the music.”

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Arguably the most important thing the Neuro Choir does is combat social isolation among patients recovering from brain injuries.

“We know that social isolation is bad for us, and it’s bad for our brains,” Richardson said. “Our goal is to have something going on every day, from reading groups to singing groups, so that people with brain injury don’t have to just sit at home. They can become part of a community of people with similar struggles, who can celebrate their triumphs and challenges together.”

Singing also helps people recovering from neurologic diseases like Parkinson’s, by increasing breath-support and loudness. Richardson says exercising and controlling the diaphragm and vocal tract through song helps clients speak longer, louder and clearer.

“We want to raise awareness of brain injury and recovery,” said Richardson. “But we also want people to take more ownership of their brains. We have ownership over our arms and our legs, because we see them and we know when they’re hurt. And while we think with our brain, we don’t often think about our brain.”

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To help convey that message, Richardson and her crew of 10-20 singers are donating a “Neuro Tree” to the Festival of Trees, and will perform at the event Sunday, Dec. 3, at the Albuquerque Convention Center.

“Our tree has nerdy brain images of typical and injured brains, as well as positive messages, like believe, hope and inspire. To believe in stroke and brain injury recovery, to hope for cures for dementia, things like that,” Richardson said.

The Neuro Choir is continuing those sentiments through their performance, singing such classics as ‘What the World Needs Now’, ‘Silent Night’, ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ and ‘Happy Christmas: War is Over’. One member who is recovering from a brain injury will also sing ‘Silent Night’ in Spanish.

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If members have difficulty making certain sounds or remembering words, the choir creates modifications within the songs – like elongating some syllables or slowing down the pace. This year the group incorporated vocal harmonies, which is a big step for those who are recovering their language abilities. Adding to the festive spirit is the choir’s accompanying pianist, co-director and certified vocologist Nicole Larson.

Richardson is already seeing the fruit of her labor to serve the brain injured community – friendships within choir, as well as positive cognitive improvements following client’s involvement in treatment research. Some choir participants have even been able to return to work; and during this holiday season, being able to participate in more “regular” aspects of life and work might just be the greatest gift of all.

“The spirit of this season, to me, is about giving and loving and inspiring,” Richardson said. “That is important not just during the holidays, but year-round. And that’s what the Neuro Choir is all about.”