Music has been described as the language that unifies us all. And indeed, many can relate to its beneficial qualities. But it's not every day that we look to an instrument to heal.
On its website, the American Music Therapy Association lists different ways that clinical music therapy can help people with medical issues, from increasing communication capabilities in children with autism to lessening the effects of dementia in older patients. Though this kind of treatment is still fairly new, and the exact nature of its purported effects is not yet understood, music therapy is a growing field that is attracting serious medical inquiry.
Among the instruments that may have a positive medical benefit is perhaps a less obvious one: the didgeridoo. And the benefit lies not so much in listening as in playing.
A 2005 study published in the British Medical Journal concluded that playing the didgeridoo for at least 20 minutes a day, five times a week produced significant improvements in people with a moderate form of sleep apnea. The respiratory condition, which causes an obstruction of the airway, may affect as many as 22 million Americans, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association. Its symptoms range from chronic fatigue to irritability to cardiovascular problems. And its causes are sometimes linked to weakened throat muscles.
Enter the didgeridoo.
The indigenous Australian wind instrument is as simple as its sounds are unearthly. The first didgeridoos were made from termite-hollowed branches of eucalyptus trees; today, they are made from many kinds of woods, and some are even made of PVC pipe or glass. The sound produced by the didgeridoo is unforgettable — a low, droning bellow that one enthusiast from didjshop.com described as "wild and haunting."
Pitz Quattrone, 51, is familiar with the instrument that he lovingly calls "the didge." A musician and music teacher who lives in East Montpelier, he has been playing the didgeridoo for 20 years. In his hands it is a surprisingly versatile instrument. On his self-released solo albums, Quattrone happily hops from genre to genre.
Quattrone, a friendly and enthusiastic guy, takes care to stress that he is not a medical professional, and doesn't fully understand the science behind whatever may be going on in the physiologies of didge-playing sleep apnea sufferers. But he does know that he sees results in the people who take his classes geared toward treating that ailment.
He observes that students who practice the didge even for a few class sessions soon start to produce exhalations of greater volume. He speculates that the playing "opens up your airways" and increases lung capacity. Playing the didgeridoo, Quattrone says, "uses your cheek muscles, lungs, belly, diaphragm, nasal passages — everything is involved. It's like a workout for things that usually don't get that kind of exercise." Indeed, the British Medical Journal study suggests that it's the circular breathing, in which didge players breathe through their noses and blow through their mouths to create sustained notes, that creates positive physiological effects.
In confirming Quattrone's "workout" hypothesis, naturopathic physician Michael Stadtmauer from the Vermont Naturopathic Clinic in South Burlington refers to another study that compared apnea rates in musicians. The 2012 study, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, found that oboe players have significantly lower rates of sleep apnea than horn players, owing largely to the former group's greater use of their throat muscles.
"This lends evidence to the idea that we can exercise the muscles of the throat and palate and, by toning them, can achieve a state where that area is more open," says Stadtmauer, a didgeridoo player himself. Playing the didge, he says, strengthens the throat muscles to the point where they are less likely to collapse during sleep, thus staving off the worst effects of apnea.
Harder medical science, though characteristically cautious, is in general agreement with that hypothesis. Garrick Applebee, medical director of the Vermont Regional Sleep Center and an assistant professor of neurology and pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, confirms that, inasmuch as playing the didgeridoo can strengthen the muscles of the upper airway, it can be an effective treatment for sleep apnea.
One medical apnea treatment, which uses implantable electrodes to stimulate the throat muscles to contract, does a very similar thing. "The tautness of the muscles makes collapse less likely," Applebee says.
He notes that, though current data are too sparse and inconclusive to suggest a specific course of treatment, he "would never encourage people not to" play the didgeridoo to treat their apnea. Applebee suggests that patients add the practice to an existing course of medical or clinical treatment.
Quattrone says he never expected his enthusiasm for the didgeridoo to translate into medical benefits for others. In fact, though he knew about the treatment for years, a variety of other projects kept pushing to the back burner this application of his instrument. But after a friend's encouragement, he decided to offer a class for apnea sufferers. That first series of classes concluded in mid-May, and, with Stadtmauer's support, was successful enough to inspire another series.
Quattrone is now an ardent promoter of the instrument's healing potential. "I really feel that this is a big part of my life's work now, for as long as I'm around," he says.
With the intention of teaching apnea-focused classes throughout Vermont, Quattrone plans to reach out to the state's practitioners of naturopathic medicine. And one day, he hopes to teach those classes around the world. "I'm all for helping as many people as I can," he says, "in as many places."