Those who have children who have learned to play an instrument or have undertaken the adventure themselves understand that the first days of practice rarely produce what one would describe as music. Or notes. In some cases, calling it noise is a stretch.
Every Thursday night at the Salvation Army’s McKenna House, a year-round shelter on South Fruit Street, a group of as many as a dozen residents, many of them picking up an instrument for the very first time, get together and make that special, well, something.
Regardless of what it sounds like, there are those who would argue that every note is perfect.
McKenna House has been hosting Music Therapy nights once a week for longer than a year, encouraging residents – regardless of experience level – to pick up an instrument and jam under the watchful eye and instructional encouragement of case manager and house supervisor Rich Doyle, an experienced musician who donated many of his own instruments to the program.
The results have been melodic at times but medicinal always, soothing some searching souls through sound.
“It’s a big stress reliever,” McKenna resident William LaBombard said in December. “For about an hour and 20 minutes you can forget about your troubles and what you are going through and just focus and have fun.”
While there are times it’s obvious the musicians are still learning, it’s not fair to cover everyone in the program with a novice blanket. In fact, many of the residents Doyle has worked with have musical experience in their background, and the therapy nights allow them to reach back and tap into legitimate talent, something positive that has been pushed down the priority list by more pressing matters.
Some nights, Doyle said, the group can sound like a well-oiled musical machine.
“We have some people who because of homelessness haven’t played in over five years, because they’ve been going after other things, after a good meal, after a warm place to stay,” Doyle said. “It’s something that gets lost when you are pursuing basic needs. There’s no outlet like that to make life more whole.”
There is now, thanks in large part to the vision of Lorrie Dale, director at McKenna House. She first had the inspiration to add music about five years ago, but didn’t have any experience with teaching music or playing instruments. So when Doyle was hired and made it clear he not only could teach people but also could provide a variety of instruments, it was a perfect match.
Residents at McKenna House must pay $10 per day or provide 20 hours of community service per week. For attending music therapy night, residents are given four hours of community service.
“You see such a difference in people,” Dale said. “For an hour and a half, they forget they’re homeless and have a blast just playing music. It’s been amazing to be able to see that. Everyone can come together with music.”
Doyle has played just about everything but the piano – viola, violin and cello in grade school, electric instruments like guitar and bass thereafter, drums along the way – and is willing to teach anyone with the passion and interest to learn. He spends time offering instruction to those who seek it, but also spends a good chunk of the night jamming with the residents. Crowds have been as large as a dozen, with an average group of about 8-10 showing up on a weekly basis.
“I let the clients lead where we’re going to go,” Doyle said. “I an offer more structure, but I want them to get enjoyment out of it, so I let them guide where we go.”
McKenna resident Harry Rosen dabbled in the trumpet for two years in junior high but grew up listening to music, enjoying the emotional style of Patsy Kline, he said. He had played the guitar on his own before but never in a group prior to arriving at the house.
“I’ve always loved music, and I enjoy playing with other people. That’s sort of the challenge for me. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to play with other musicians, with percussion and electric guitar,” Rosen said. “I’m not used to it, but it’s a lot of fun.”
LaBombard had no experience playing music prior to the music therapy nights. He experimented with other instruments but found a home behind the drum set.
“I grew up listening to Dean Martin, Sinatra, and I always wanted to play. When I came here and had the opportunity to sit behind a drum set, (I jumped at it),” LaBombard said. “Music is really therapeutic to listen to. You put on your headphones, close your eyes and escape to another world.”
The program has certainly been transformative for many residents, Dale and Doyle said. Many who have shown up at McKenna House meek and searching for a voice have found a release strumming strings.
“We get some people who are very quiet and shelter-shocked and they come here and bond with other people,” Dale said. “We’ve really seen a change in a lot of personalities just by participating in something as simple as music.”
Said Doyle: “We’ve had people here who are very introverted, and this is a way of expressing themselves. It’s really their form of conversation. The most rewarding thing is when I see they are truly enjoying it and you can tell. Life can be very stressful, and struggles here can be more frequent, but it releases some of that tension.”
It’s even had an impact on Doyle, who has been given the rare and interesting opportunity to shake up and look into a snowglobe he’s actually part of.
“In a large way, I’m a people watcher. I like to see people get out of themselves for awhile,” Doyle said. “To see someone who has had tremendous hardships in their recent past and be able to be themselves for a minute, to see a smile on their face and just feel content, that’s very rewarding and centering all at the same time.”