In 1966, Wes Ricks, then 19, was a river rat plying the waters of Vietnam while serving in the Navy.
“We were getting shot at all the time,” said Ricks, now a professional musician from Phoenix.
Ricks knew what he wanted to do when he returned home.
“When I was going into Indochina to serve over there, I said ‘God, I am in your hands so let thy will be done.’ So if it was for me to be killed, then so be it,” Ricks said. “On the way out of Indochina I said ‘I know you’ve got something for me to do, and you know what, I think I found it.’ The music and the arts.”
Arizona veterans, like Ricks who volunteers with “Guitar for Vets,” are turning to music to better their health.
Programs at Arizona State University in Tempe and Southern Arizona Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Tucson are helping vets through music therapy.
“I let them play, make up their own songs,” said Jane Click, a certified music therapist at Southern Arizona VA Health Care System. “Do it however they want, whether or not they have played or not. It doesn’t matter because they can make up their own song, which gives them a sense of empowerment.”
The hospital hosts two music therapy programs dedicated to helping veterans cope with mental and physical issues. Click, a music therapist for 21 years, focuses on veterans struggling with substance abuse.
“They’re sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Click said.
During her weekly class, veterans play drums, thumb pianos, tonal sticks and other musical instruments. Anywhere from three to six veterans come to each class.
Playing the drums helps them concentrate, Click said. They also play the drums together as a group, which makes them focus on others and follow directions.
“I try to present music activities that help them find self-expression, self-worth, self-accomplishment,” Click said.
Veterans also draw to music Click plays to figure out what mood the tunes put them in. Towards the end of the session, she uses guided imagery from a CD that has sounds of birds to help them relax.
“I want you to close your eyes and just listen,” said Click, during one of her music therapy groups.
Click presses play on the CD player and sounds of waterfalls and birds fill the room.
She lets the music play for a few minutes, then turns it off.
“What were you thinking?” Click said.
“I was thinking about my childhood and my family,” said Mark Scott, a veteran in the group.
The calming music helps blood pressure go down, and helps patient’s use their musical mood to become aware of their thoughts and memories, as well as altering moods.
After matching music with a patient’s mood, the therapist is able to have the patient change from one emotional state to another.
Arizona State University also helps veterans through music therapy.
Guitars for Vets, a national program started in 2007 in Milwaukee, has a Phoenix chapter run by Robin Rio, an associate professor of music at ASU’s Music Therapy School.
The purpose is to give veterans a voice, Rio said.
Groups of six veterans gather weekly for the 10-week program, which is held twice a year.
When the program started three years ago, there was one group of six people. As of last year, 40 people participated.
“Music therapy is very holistic,” Rio said.
Barbara Crowe, director of ASU’s Music Therapy School, describes music and mind as complex systems. The body and mind can recover from physical or emotional jolts to the system.
“Complex movement is not a simple movement, like the swinging of a pendulum, but is rather a shimmering mass of potential in a general shape like the actual movement of the heart,” Crowe said.
A grandfather clock, for example, has a pendulum that ticks back and forth around a point of rest, but a bump can send the pendulum off track. Renew the pendulum swing and the clock will find its way back to the point of rest. The music therapist is the extra motion that helps a patient to get back to the point of rest, according to Crowe.
Music therapists are required to pass a board certified exam, given by the American Music Therapy Association.
“We use music as a tool to reach a goal,” said Crowe.
Rebecca Sasnett is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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