Sometimes all you need to provide healing is a pen, a pad and an old guitar. Episcopal band director Doug Gay and his team at BR Music Studios are offering their version of healing and support to Louisiana veterans through free Veterans Songwriting Collective workshops.
Doug and his team began this journey two years ago when they were approached by the Louisiana Office of Cultural Development to create a program specifically for veterans. BR Music Studios already had programs in place for preschool musicians and individuals with adaptive needs and Doug says they were eager to work with veterans as well. “We say yes and then we figure it out,” he says. The group did figure it out by adapting an existing program to fit the needs of veterans. One need that Doug and his team identified quickly among the veterans was the need to be heard. These men and women have stories that many don’t understand and it’s comforting for them to be in a place where their story is not only heard, but also appreciated.
During the pilot programs, which were offered in Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Alexandria and Shreveport, participants spent considerable time simply talking about what they had experienced. In fact, Doug says the sessions all ran much longer than initially planned and going forward he plans to allow more time for discussion. After participants shared their stories, the music educators helped them put their thoughts into lyrics. You might think it would be hard to narrow down so many experiences into one song, but Doug says it always comes together. “It’s magic,” he says with the excitement of someone who has dedicated his life to helping others discover their musical talents.
"I want the audience to get the same goosebumps I get."
Doug says it is powerful to hear the stories of the Veterans Songwriting Collective participants. As you speak to him about the project, the sense of awe and respect he has for the veterans involved is immediately apparent. For Doug and his team, the Veterans Songwriting Collective project is truly a way to support and recognize veterans. He is honored to share this experience with them and humbled by the part BR Music Studios is playing. “We’re just teaching how to write a song,” he says. But clearly, there is much more.
For workshop participant Army Specialist Chad Chenevert, who is married to Episcopal Director of Technology, Michelle Chenevert, the experience was particularly meaningful. At the workshop, SPC Chenevert reflected on what inspired him to serve and the importance of his grandfather’s military hat for his entire family. “My grandfather was my hero, and since the first picture I saw of him in uniform…I only hoped I could grow to be like him,” says Chenevert. “He marched me around his house in Alexandria calling out cadence while I tried to keep that big hat on my young head straight and proud.” Once SPC Chenevert became a man big enough to wear that hat, he followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and joined the Louisiana Army National Guard at only 17 years old. “I turned 18 in the gas chamber at Ft. Leonard Wood, MO and have tried to serve my country in anyway I can, even after my honorable discharge,” he says.
As stories such as SPC Chenevert’s are told during the workshops, there is a sense of understanding among the attendees. Participants can relate to one another and the challenges they have all faced. Veterans Songwriting Collective sessions are filled with laughter, tears and the comfort that comes from being with those who understand. While the goal is for veterans to come together to write a song about shared experiences, the journey and bonding that occurs are the true takeaways.
Thanks to the expertise of Doug and his team, these shared stories are transformed into meaningful songs. Doug and his workshop co-creator, Sarah Burke, have partnered with Nashville Star finalist and Army Specialist David St. Romain, to voice the songs and a team of BR Music Studios musicians supply the rhythms. There truly is a magic in the experience as men and women who once felt their story was unheard, now have the opportunity to hear their story in song.
Specialist Chenevert says the Veterans Songwriting Collective experience was incredible and he is confident it can help other veterans who are struggling with their challenges. This sentiment around music therapy is gaining traction. Music therapy has existed since the early 1800s with the first university music therapy courses introduced in the 1940s. Now, the National Endowment for the Arts is working with the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs to help members of the military deal with issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. According to Creative Forces, which is a National Endowment for the Arts initiative that works with military personnel, music therapy can help “optimize feelings of safety and reduce perceptions of threat during emotional risk-taking.” The organization also points out that music therapy “contributes to improvements in social integration, quality of life, and overall motivation in the recovery process.”
After seeing the value of the initial pilot sessions, the Louisiana Division of the Arts and the Lt. Governor's office have begun the process of approving two additional workshops in the spring of 2020. Doug and his team are especially interested in bringing the events to smaller, more rural areas so that more veterans can easily access them. In the meantime, songs such as those inspired by SPC Chenevert’s own experience will serve as a reminder of those who serve and the sacrifices they make. “My grandmother absolutely cherishes it, as it was her husband who wore the hat,” says Chenevert. “We are very appreciative for the talents of Doug Gay, David St. Romain, and all the others who volunteered their time to organize the event,” says Chenevert’s wife, Michelle. “Our family was moved to tears as we listened to the song created called ‘PawPaw’s Hat.’”
To SPC Chenevert, his grandfather and so many others, we say thank you for your commitment and service. Click here to listen to "Paw Paw's Hat."
Happy Veterans Day!