LEE -- Singing has helped Bob Tabakin find his voice again.
Not in the metaphorical way, but through the practice of maintaining volume, varying pitch -- challenges he faces due to Parkinson's disease.
"This is the only place I can sing and not worry about what I sound like," said Tabakin, 57, a Pittsfield resident who was diagnoised with the degenerative disorder of the central nervous system 10 years ago.
"I certainly would not have been in a singing group had it not been for Parkinson's, because I don't really have a lot of talent," he said with a laugh.
Tabakin is one of about 20 members in the Sing for Joy choir, a group that meets once a week at the First Congregational Church in Lee to sing, work on strengthening their voices and laugh a little. The community choir begain in April 2011 as the brain-child of Margaret Black well and Megan Cook. The creative project works to uplift the human spirit through singing, while enriching the lives of people affected by Parkinson's disease, Cook said.
"Some of the more common challenges for people living with Park inson's include reduction in vocal volume, a voice that fades during conversation, monotonous pitch, vocal hoarseness and breathiness," said Cook, a speech therapist who runs the volunteer-based choir. "We do exercises that involve volume, maintaining loudness, varying pitch and managing hoarseness. A secondary benefit to all of this is to be able to carry all of this over to conversational speech too."
Before rehearsal starts, the group warms up with vocal exercises and stretches for the neck muscles.
Hypophonia, or a weak voice due to the incoordination of the vocal muscles, is a symptom of Parkinson's. Tabakin calls it his "soft voice."
"It comes on and you don't really realize it until you think everyone is ignoring you when you say something," he said. "Singing has helped with that."
The choir meets every Tuesday, year-round. Not everyone who participates has the disease, or is affected by it, and anyone who would like to join is welcome, according to Cook.
Mavis Beam and her husband, Kenneth, of Lee, like to come each week just to get out of the house and socialize. Mavis' sister has Park inson's, so she said it makes her feel good to donate money and sing with the group.
At this rehearsal, there's a nervous energy, shuffling in the pews and passing of song sheets -- the choir is practicing for their benefit concert.
The concert -- which will be held 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4 at the church -- takes center stage, forcing the disease and its challenges to take a pew in the back. The music selection is rousing, under the energetic direction of the choir's conductor Vikki True -- an entertainer and artist educator brought on to lead the choir in 2012 -- and after a few run-throughs of "When You're Smiling" the whole group is toe-tapping with grins.
"I love to hear professional music done well and re hearsed," True said. "But the quality of music that is most magical is when it really is for everyone. Whether its singing or drumming or chanting, when we do it in community we are brought closer together in that vibration. There are lots of studies that show when people sing together, their heartbeats come closer together, their blood pressure goes down, white blood cell count goes up, respiration changes. It's true, I've seen it happen."
Cook has seen this effect too. She's had wives of choir members tell her coming to practice is the only thing the spouse wants to do. One member is sometimes disoriented and doesn't know what day of the week it is, but when Tuesday comes along, Cook said, he always knows what day it is.
"We don't really talk about the illness here," Tabakin said. "We're not defined by the illness, but we all know we have stuff we go through ... I had to give up a lot of things. Parkinson's is kind of a thief. It takes away years of your life in months."