MORRIS, Ill. — The Diagnostic and Rehabilitative Center of Morris Hospital has a variety of machines to work out patients' muscles including one you might not expect — a harmonica.

"Music brings people together," said pulmonary rehabilitation specialist Virginia Landers. "It's good for the soul."

And, as it turns out, it's also good for the lungs.

Patients can lift weights to work out their biceps, but when it comes to working on a patient's diaphragm there are few devices more effective than a harmonica, according to Landers.

The deep breathing required for playing the harmonica helps clear phlegm from the amateur musicians' airwaves, but also helps them strengthen their respiratory muscles in the long term.

Individuals with lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease start to use accessory muscles which can make simple tasks such as getting dressed exhausting.

"In other words, you're using a lot of other muscles to breathe with and as a result your diaphragm gets weak and you use a lot more energy because you're not using one muscle but seven or eight," Landers said.

Landers saw the benefit similar harmonica groups have had for those with respiratory conditions in other states and wanted to introduce the concept locally as she felt many in the community could benefit from it.

The group currently has around six to 10 participants which meet on the last Thursday of every month to play a tune or two.

A majority of those in attendance have never played the harmonica before and are learning for the first time, but not so for Bill Robinson.

The 81-year-old came into the room with an oxygen tank, but when given a harmonica he played a couple songs to warm up with no issue.

"I've played since I was 10 years old," Robinson said.

Robinson said he's been going to the clinic ever since he broke his hip. He also said he smoked a lot throughout his life and the harmonica group was suggested to him to assist with his breathing.

The group struggled through a couple of songs together not necessarily due to their breathing issues, but because they were becoming accustomed to the harmonica and songs.

"This is going to get better. I can feel it," Landers said.

And they did. By the end of the session the group completed "Mary Had A Little Lamb" with ease. The goal is to be able to perform "Jingle Bells" in front of an audience by December.

Others without severe respiratory issues are already considering stopping by for a session.

Jud Sanders, of Ottawa, also attended for the first time in August to help with her asthma. She said her husband is considering joining just because he's interested in learning to play the harmonica.

Landers said anyone interested in joining the group can attend the sessions and group members hope to be able to attract someone with harmonica experience to help lead the group in training.

Each song was bookmarked with a lot of laughter and a few coughs as participants worked through some of the more difficult songs and notes.

As it happens, getting out of the house and sharing some laughs is part of the medicine too.

"Our goal is to get them out and get them engaging," Landers said. "As soon as they come and they start engaging with one another it becomes a social event."

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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