ITHACA, N.Y. — A local program is helping some residents breathe a little easier by pairing respiratory health education with harmonica playing.

On Thursday, a group of of about 15 people gathered with their harmonicas and music books at the Just Be Cause Center in Ithaca. They played “Oh Susanna,” “Brother John” and other classic tunes with direction from Samantha Hillson, director of health promotion for the Tompkins County Health Department. The performance Thursday wrapped up six weeks of a new program called Harmonicas for Health.

The Tompkins County Health Department has been piloting the program, which was developed by the COPD Foundation. The program is geared toward people with asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, more commonly called COPD. Two six-week programs that ran this fall were a hit with participants who while learning the harmonica, also learned about respiratory diseases and breathing exercises and made friends along the way.

COPD is a disease of the lungs that can make it difficult to breathe because airways are damaged. It can include disorders like emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Carrie Westlake, systems manager for respiratory therapy at Cayuga Medical Center, said like asthma, COPD can have a reactive component that causes the airway to clamp down.

“When you think about asthma, you think about a trigger that causes the reaction,” Westlake said. “Well COPD is damage that’s been done over the years and it could be from cigarette smoke and it could also be from chronic exposure to environmental things such as dust or chemicals.”

Some people are also genetically predisposed for COPD, but the majority of people who have COPD ended up with it because of smoking or exposure to air pollutants over a long period of time.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 24 million Americans have COPD, but only about half have been diagnosed. COPD is the third-leading cause of death in the United States, after cancer and heart disease.

Carrie Westlake discusses asthma and COPD at Harmonicas for Health on Nov. 9. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice
Carrie Westlake discusses asthma and COPD at Harmonicas for Health on Nov. 9. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Though COPD and asthma cannot be cured, they can be treated and managed. That’s where learning harmonica comes in. Using a harmonica helps teach pursed lip breathing and serves as a way to mimic pulmonary rehabilitation exercises. During the class Thursday, Hillson said explained they use the harmonica because to play, someone must breathe in for certain notes and exhale against resistance.

“The hope is that will help strengthen muscles,” Hillson said. “So there’s a focus on breathing, a mindfulness about breathing when you’re playing and that’s what we’ve been going over the past six weeks. And the goal of the program is really not to play every note correctly … but also to be mindful of your breathing in order to make music and have fun.”

Playing the harmonica does not improve lung function, but it can give people better control over their breathing and learn breathing strategies that help with shortness of breath and anxiety.

► Related: Learn more about Harmonicas for Health

Susan Dunlop, community health nurse for the Tompkins County Health Department, said local officials are trying to talk about COPD more, so more people will come forward and get screened.

“We’re really trying to talk about it because there still is a stigma with COPD that people are reluctant to come forward for diagnosis,” Dunlop said. “What we’re trying to emphasis is getting the diagnosis and getting on the proper management is going to, in the long run, manage your disease.”

Symptoms of COPD include chronic cough, shortness of breath, especially during activities, wheezing, phlegm, tightness in the chest and feeling like you can’t take a deep breath. However, local health officials encourage people to get screened before symptoms become prevalent.

“A lot of people will have COPD that goes undiagnosed until they are profoundly symptomatic, but if we can get people screened earlier, maybe we can a bit more of an impact and show them how to treat their disease early on and manage it before it gets to the point where they’re really severe,” Westlake said.

Many people don’t exhibit strong symptoms right away. Hillson said participants of Harmonicas for Health have shared examples of subtle indicators of COPD — like having shortness of breath going up stairs or even an example by a singer who said they could not longer hit a high note.

“What we’re trying to do is get people to understand their disease because so many times they’re compensating in so many ways they don’t even realize,” Dunlop said. “Like someone said ‘I don’t try to go up and down the stairs by myself anymore because it’s just too hard.’ … They don’t realize how many activities they’re compromising just to get by in life when really there are things that can help manage the disease.”

Part of the six-week course is teaching people how to manage their disease, learning how to correctly take medications, how to have certain discussions with their doctor and when people should seek help before a situation becomes an emergency.

Anyone with concerns should talk to their health provider. The screening process for COPD is non-invasive and may involve a chest X-ray and pulmonary function test, Westlake said.

Harmonicas for Health is part of Healthy Lungs for Tompkins County and is supported by the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County, Cayuga Medical Center, the Tompkins County Health Department and the COPD Foundation.

For more information about Harmonicas for Health or to join call 607-274-6600 or visit Another program is expected to start in January.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.