Stroke survivors continue to heal through the power of music

The Backstrokes: Marlane Venner, Brad Caster, Carol and Ed Edmo, Lee Jordan, Lynn Sweeney, Anne Tillinghast,
Phil Liu and his mother Ellen.

Back in early 2013, we heard about a group of stroke survivors who found their voice and some healing through music in a group known as The Backstrokes. We’re pleased to report that the music group continues to play together…

Since the original blog post, The Backstrokes have been going strong.

We have been joined by guitarist, Keith Parkhurst–a long-time Portland musician, who is naturally good at connecting with people, and finding out what songs they like to sing.

Most of our core group still attends regularly, and we continue to celebrate noticeable improvement in speech and overall communication skills, showing that ongoing recovery continues to be possible even ten years or more after a stroke.

Some of our members also attend speech therapy at the Portland State University Aphasia Program. According to them, singing on a weekly basis, or more, is helpful in “speeding up” the results of those efforts.

Liz & Kate Sterry, Marlane Venner and Anne Tillinghast at the recent Heart & Stroke Walk finish line.

Last fall, we were very happy to add a second group that invites members to bring instruments they already play, or are learning.

The goal of this group is to develop the skills needed to play along with others in impromptu settings.

This is not only an attempt to engage more of the brain in healing, but also to try to facilitate more social and community involvement, which can be severely limited by impaired speech.

For the past two years, Marlane Venner, has been attending both Backstrokes groups, as well as volunteering with us at two skilled nursing facilities.

In spite of numbness and partial paralysis in her right hand, she is also learning to play the ukulele.  In the past few months, her speech has improved enough to start telling me about herself and her life.

She happily states that she is “getting better!” She attributes this, in part, to the variety of  social interactions around each music activity, and from “pushing the envelope” in learning new skills.

This growing friendship is profoundly rewarding on a personal level, and professionally, it encourages us to keep trying new ways to engage people to play music, or in Marlane’s words, to keep “pushing the envelope!”

Learn more at

Hear The Backstrokes play on this KOIN news report from 2013:


Anne Tillinghast is passionate about inspiring others to sing and play music. She worked at the Oregon Stroke Center at OHSU for 13 years before starting The Backstrokes group for Stroke Survivors in 2012. Her varied work experience also includes singing to help teach language skills in developmental preschool classrooms, and using camp songs to wrangle sixth-graders during their week’s stay with the Multnomah County Outdoor School program.