Nonprofit harnesses power of music as a therapeutic tool

Matthew Spencer plays the banjo with the Semper Sound Band, which is made up of active duty service members and veterans who have suffered injuries or illness. The monthly concerts are held in the courtyard of the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. Spencer’s service dog, Jery, is in the foreground.
(Joe Tash)

On a recent overcast morning, Matthew Parker stood singing and playing his banjo with a group of other musicians in the courtyard of the Naval Medical Center near Balboa Park in San Diego.

As Parker sang “Wagon Wheel,” a song co-written by Bob Dylan and turned into a hit by Darius Rucker, people passed through the busy courtyard on the way to lunch or medical appointments, and others gathered to watch.

The performance was more than just an impromptu gig for Parker and the other musicians — they were part of the Semper Sound Band, made up of injured or ill active-duty service members and veterans who were participating in a music therapy program organized by Resounding Joy, a San Diego-based nonprofit.

Parker, an Iraq War veteran whose “day job” is training military dogs, has post-traumatic stress disorder because of injuries suffered in combat and in two motorcycle accidents after his return. The music therapy program, he said, has been a “godsend.”

“I love it,” he said. “It really takes me away.”

Sam Abel, a former Navy corpsman who also was injured in Iraq, strummed an acoustic guitar alongside Parker at the courtyard concert. He has suffered from a traumatic brain injury and PTSD. Playing with the Semper Sound band, as well as at the Veterans Administration treatment center where he lives, forces him to meet people and allows him to express his creativity.

“I feel like it gets me out of that trap of being depressed and isolated,” he said.

The Semper Sound program began in 2010 as an outgrowth of some of Resounding Joy’s other programs for seniors and young children, said Barbara Reuer, the group’s founder and executive director. It began with a 90-minute program at the Naval Medical Center, and has since expanded to weekly one-on-one and group sessions at a number of military facilities in the county, including Camp Pendleton.

Semper Sound is especially meaningful, said Reuer, because the concept of music therapy — now a widely accepted adjunct to other forms of psychological treatment and therapy — began with efforts to help World War II veterans recover from what was then called “shell shock” by bringing musicians to play for them in the hospital.

“It’s come full circle with these men and women coming back (from Iraq and Afghanistan) with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said.

The program includes a number of activities for participants, from guitar lessons to song-writing sessions, said Hannah Bronson, program director for Semper Sound, and a certified music therapist. The band plays at the medical center courtyard once a month.

The musical interaction is intended to help the military members and veterans deal with the emotional and neurological aspects of their injuries, as well as physical ones. For example, patients who have suffered a hand injury might need assistance learning to play an instrument, Branson said.

“Music is such a dynamic way to help people,” she said.

In addition to the work with military members, Resounding Joy also has programs for seniors, young children and teen moms, said Reuer.

The program trains adult and youth volunteers to work with senior citizens in a variety of settings, from nursing homes to senior centers to in-home visits. The visits could include singing, playing instruments, listening to music or other music-related activities.

Music can enhance the seniors’ memory and communication skills, said Reuer, including those who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

“Especially in later-stage Alzheimer’s, to have a few lucid moments and have the person recognize them, is really meaningful” to family members, said Reuer, who has worked in the field of music therapy for 35 years.

Other programs offered by Resounding Joy include 10-week music classes for parents and toddlers, and even birthday parties, Reuer said.

Reuer also runs a for-profit music therapy practice called MusicWorx, Inc., which works with hospitals, nursing homes, schools, substance abuse centers and other facilities.

The common theme, she said, is using music to help people.

“We all respond to music,” she said. “It can be a very powerful therapeutic tool.”

For information about Resounding Joy, visit resoundingjoyinc.org.


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