The Story Behind SongShine

Ruthanna Metzgar is the creator, founder and director of SongShine Foundation, a music-based voice rehabilitation class for people with Parkinson’s, stroke, other neurological disorders, or aging voices.  Here's the story Ruthanna shares about the origin of SongShine:

My childhood home nestled in a beautiful forest preserve on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. On quiet summer evenings I listened to the rhythm of waves softly lapping the beach, accompanied by a whippoorwill’s plaintive song—nature’s music. During the day a classical radio station filled our house with more beautiful music -- symphonies, opera, art songs, German Lieder. Lessons included piano, organ, violin, snare drum, tympani, and voice; they were further augmented by seven exciting summers studying at Interlochen National Music Camp in northern Michigan. Music was a major part of life.

No wonder I pursued music as a career, as my father had dreamed. Dad was a rural pastor with a huge heart for seniors. Usually, Sunday meant a full house for dinner. Our guests might include one with Lou Gehrig’s disease, another recovering from a stroke, one using a walker, another with Parkinson’s, and there were many widows and widowers.

Dad loved them all; they were part of our lives. As a three year old, I accompanied him on visits to elderly who were confined to their homes. We also went to hospitals, retirement homes, and nursing facilities. Thus, I gained an appreciation and deep respect for these wonderful elders who knew how to persevere through tough times.

Decades passed and inevitably I, too, became a senior citizen. My husband and I retired and began wintering in southern California. One day I received a phone call asking if I would consider “doing something with music for the Traub Parkinson’s Center at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California; perhaps a sing-a-long?” It seemed natural to say, “Yes.”

Personal experiences replayed themselves in my mind. As a university voice instructor, I worked with students who stuttered terribly but sang beautifully. My dad had fought a long battle with Alzheimer’s, unable to communicate coherently. In spite of his disease, we could walk the halls of the Alzheimer unit together, singing old hymns without him ever missing a word! My mother suffered a stroke and was unable to speak, but hours before her death she and I sang many of her favorite childhood Sunday school songs. Her voice was strong and her diction clear. 

I wondered if singing could possibly strengthen a stroke or Parkinson’s patient’s speaking voice. Could there be an alternate neurological pathway to circumvent the malfunctioning part of the brain? I became convinced of the possibilities and excited about training and strengthening a person’s speech through the medium of music. Events and influences from the time of my childhood through university and adult years became the building blocks for a project bigger than I.

Studying music’s amazing effect on the brain, collecting and writing suitable vocalises, and developing weekly lessons became a new passion, co-equal with teaching and interacting with my wonderful class of SongShiners.

There is a familiar story which compares life to a tapestry. From our human perspective, life’s events and trials produce the underside of the tapestry with its knots and loose hanging threads. The beautiful picture is on the reverse side, and once-in-a-while Providence allows us to glimpse the upper, beautiful side of the tapestry. For me, the upper side of the weaving is SongShine.