Jason Armstrong Baker’s online drumming classes help Dale Tepper, a 71-year-old Annapolis woman, calm her tremors and strengthen her hands. She says that working in a group setting, learning new participants’ names and remembering rhythms and movements for different songs get her brain firing.
“The hardest thing in Jason’s class for me is using my hands and feet at different rhythms. That makes your brain just work and work,” she says. “It’s great for Parkinson’s.”
Tepper, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2019, now drums on everything, especially when listening to the radio. She loves Paul Simon and classic rock.
“I came into this not knowing anything about music — nothing. Now I listen to music in a different way,” she says. “I break it down. I figure out the backbeat and start drumming.”
Baker, who is board certified nationally in music therapy and is a licensed music therapist in Maryland, has been drumming for 40 years. He encourages group members to practice for five minutes, three times a day — he calls it his “prescription for rhythm.”
He first realized the power of music and its effects on those with neurological disorders about 15 years ago when he was running group drum sessions in a Baltimore County senior center. One participant who had suffered a stroke could utter nothing except his own name for about two years. A few sessions into the program, however, he motioned Baker to take a solo, and when Baker obliged, the man said, “That’s it!” At another session, when asked what was different about people’s solos, he was able to say that one drummer’s playing was very soft.
“His wife’s mouth dropped, she started crying, and the director of the center, they were just dumbfounded,” Baker says.
He notices the lack of facial expression that can afflict people with Parkinson’s seems to turn to smiles by the end of the class, with participants more easily laughing and engaging with their classmates.
“What I’m hearing is that after they’ve warmed up, they feel that they’re able to be more purposeful with movement,” Baker says. “When we had class in person, after warming up and getting into the rhythm, the tremors would diminish.”
Baker got involved in this work after he sent a Facebook message to the Center for Music and Medicine inquiring if they could collaborate. Center director and co-founder Alexander Pantelyat wanted to do more work with drumming, so he put Baker to work. About a year later, Baker ran a 12-week drumming feasibility study for people with Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases.
Like Baker, Pantelyat simply put the idea out there, and over time made it happen.
When he interviewed with Johns Hopkins Director of Neurology Justin McArthur, Pantelyat had already published a study in Movement Disorders — Clinical Practice showing that people with Parkinson’s reported quality of life improvements after six weeks of biweekly drumming lessons.
“I said I’d love to blend my interest in music-based interventions with my dedication to patients with movement disorders,” recalls Pantelyat. McArthur told him to see if other Johns Hopkins faculty members were interested.
Pantelyat found partners within Johns Hopkins and at the Peabody Institute, and about a year after the center’s founding, the ParkinSonics group singing study began.