Rancho Mirage resident and former Desert Regional Medical Center radiologist, Dr. Pam Meoli, had a stroke at age 51. Her prognosis included a walker or cane, little or no mobility of her left arm, and compromised speech. After nine months of speech therapy her ability to speak was much improved, but she was still not willing to talk on the phone or engage in conversation with anyone but family. Searching for something to enhance her progress, she decided to try SongShine, a music-based speech and voice therapy program located in Palm Desert.
Dr. Meoli told Ruthanna Metzgar, the founder and creator of SongShine, that it was humiliating to be there, but she had to try something. “Pam is one of our real success stories,” Metzger states, “In 2012 she played the part of a nun in a SongShine concert version of the Sound of Music, and this year, she sang and acted in a small group performing the song Matchmaker from our performance of Fiddler on the Roof.” Metzger adds that Pam’s speech was clear and flowing and that she was using her left arm for gestures. Her acting was full of energy and engagement. “We went out for coffee a few days later and she talked nonstop. And yes, Pam talks on the phone with no problem now. It was the combination of singing and acting…of becoming a character other than yourself…that began to invigorate Pam’s speech and began enabling her to express herself with emotion and vitality.”
When asked of her metamorphosis into a singing actress, Dr. Meoli says with a smile, “My first experience was as a nun in Sound of Music. I was really nervous about speaking my lines clearly. But when they asked me to be Tzeitel in Fiddler, I figured it was a step up from being a nun with two lines. Before the performance Ruthanna told me, ‘just go out there and have fun, have a good time.’ And that is what I did. It was just like any other ordinary day with 600 people watching you. And I wasn’t scared at all. I just had a good time!”
SongShine Foundation has seen first-hand that music has the power to rewire the human brain through neural plasticity, the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways. This can help bring back a voice that has been nearly silenced by Parkinson’s disease, stroke, other neurological disorders or aging. Brain imaging shows that not only singing, but also acting creates neural pathways. SongShine Foundation’s Singers and Players Class may be one of the few places in the country where people with neurological disorders are invited to participate in a costumed, script-adapted concert version of a Broadway musical.
Classes are team taught by Dr. Ruthanna Metzgar and Peter Harris. Metzgar, who has a doctorate in Voice Performance and a forty-year career as a voice teacher, professional singer, choral and orchestral conductor, worked collaboratively with otolaryngologists and speech pathologists in voice rehabilitation. Peter Harris studied classical acting, speech and diction at the Juilliard School, trained at Broadway’s famed Circle-In-the Square Theater School and at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, and took course work at the Drama Therapy Institute of Los Angeles. He had a twenty-year acting career in New York, was in the original touring cast of Les Miserables and performed in the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut.
Their backgrounds make Metzgar and Harris a uniquely strong teaching team, academically and performance-wise. But they believe their real strength comes from a mutual love of working with neurologically challenged people: Both had fathers with Alzheimer’s, an experience that adds commitment and passion to their work.
Two new SongShine classes will begin on November 4, a Basics class which will run through January 20, and a SongShine Singers and Players class running through April 14 for those interested in being part of their upcoming production of The Music Man. Classes are held at Palm Desert Community Presbyterian Church on Hwy 74.
For details or to register, call Dr. Ruthanna Metzgar (425) 210.3612 or Peter Harris (760) 327.1460 or visit online at www.SongShineforParkinsons.org, where you can also see an interview with Dr. Meoli and her performance of Matchmaker. SongShine Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit public charity.