“It’s a very motive kind of thing. It can arouse feelings, it can express things that sometimes are hard to put into words,” said Gary Walbrun, a guitar player and Guitars for Vets organizer, as he described the effect of listening to music.
“But when you play music it takes that up like five notches,” he said. “When you are sitting there strumming your guitar, it’s a powerful avenue for expression and for creating relationships with other people.”
Asheville’s Guitars for Vets program coordinators David Legler and Carolyn Brown [front row] pose with volunteer guitar instructors and Education Director, Gary Walbrun [back, second from left]. They raised about $1,200 at a fundraiser concert.
Tapping into that healing power of music is the mission behind Guitars for Vets. Walbrun worked with two social workers at the Asheville VA Medical Center to offer Veterans a unique therapy option: guitar lessons.
Mental health patients referred by Carolyn Brown, LCSW, and David Legler, LCSW-P, to the Guitars for Vets program are given six free private guitar lessons with an experienced volunteer instructor. When they graduate, the Veterans are given a guitar and are encouraged to participate in group workshops where they can continue to learn to play and learn new, healthy coping skills.
“And Carolyn is a better singer, we’re a good compliment to each other,” added Legler.
“We both have the passion of music in our own lives and we’ve both seen the healing power in it,” said Brown. “I have a soundtrack for every single season of my life and that’s what we’re doing with these Veterans; we’re writing a soundtrack for them getting back to normal life.”
More than a music lesson
Since the program launched in February, 20 Veterans have picked up the guitar.
The participants are all ages and come from every military and musical background, but many are dealing with similar readjustment issues, post-traumatic stress disorder and even traumatic brain injuries. Volunteer instructors are careful not to overwhelm their students; the first lesson covers the basics: how to hold the guitar, learning a few chords.
The challenge of learning a new skill in a new setting already had Army Veteran Jeff Taylor a little anxious. When he showed up for his first private lesson through the Guitars for Vets program a few weeks ago, however, he ran into an unexpected problem.
“I guess I’m the first left-handed guitar player to sign up,” Taylor explained. Guitars for Vets was able to get him a left-handed guitar, but Taylor’s first lesson left him extra time to get acquainted with his instructor.
“I didn’t want to go in expecting anything more than what was capable,” he said. “It was kind of an overwhelming thing before I actually got there, but once I met with the instructor, he was really laid back and it was easy.”
The two joked around and, of course, talked about music. Taylor went over his favorite bands — Saving Able, Theory of a Dead Man, Breaking Benjamin — and they found a song that his instructor could translate into an easy cover.
Brown explained that this student-teacher relationship is an important element in the program.
“The relationship with the guitar instructor and the Veteran — that social lesson is huge,” she said. “Just to have that positive connection with a person in the community who’s not a Vet and just wants to spend time with Veterans.”
Music as therapy
Instructors are chosen more for their patience and interest in working with Veterans, than their technical skill, Walbrun said. That is because the goal isn’t necessarily to teach the Veterans to be a great guitar player; it is to teach them to reach a level of proficiency where the Veterans get something out of the experience.
As he established Guitars for Vets chapters across the Carolinas, Walbrun never had difficulty finding community members to champion the project.
“I’ve found that musicians that I know, they really embrace it and they are more than willing to help,” he said. “They do have to be a special type of person, I think. They need to come to it with an appreciation for what those Veterans have been through.”
At the Asheville VA Medical Center, program organizers Brown and Legler work with five guitar instructors and are building community support with fundraiser events that feature some of the Veterans from the program.
“As a community, we’ve lost that whole sense of how do we connect with our warriors who come home,” Brown said. “[Guitars for Vets] can be a way to help keep [a Veteran’s] mind off things and help them stay in the moment. And it can be a way to help them process those things, when they are ready.”
“All you need is a guitar”
Taylor still prefers practicing alone, just sitting outside and playing.
Being a perfectionist, Taylor said he has a hard time hearing his improvements from week to week. That is where his instructor helped, encouraging him during lessons so that Taylor remembered that positive feedback when he practiced.
“If you’re playing a song and you actually recognize the song you’re playing that’s a really good feeling,” he said. “It makes up for the long times you feel like you are not making any progress.”
Now he can start playing a song and stop thinking or worrying about anything else. Of all the hobbies Taylor has tried, he said this is the easiest. “All you need is a guitar and somewhere quiet.”
Walbrun hopes that his students find the same peace of mind through music.
“I don’t know if other people would have the same experience [as I do],” he said. “What I would really like my students to do is sit there and hold that guitar and put their ear down to it and pluck the string.
“It’s a beautiful sound. It just echoes and it sings and it fades out. It’s a really meditative experience when you learn to listen.”