Local Veterans Look Forward to National Festival - Bay Pines VA Healthcare System
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Local Veterans Look Forward to National Festival

Pictured in photo: Erin Todd, Music Therapist at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System facilitates tone chime music therapy with group members (left to right) Luther Harrison, Rebecca Heissler, and Barbara Wood.

Pictured in photo: Erin Todd, Music Therapist at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System facilitates tone chime music therapy with group members (left to right) Luther Harrison, Rebecca Heissler, and Barbara Wood.

By Melanie L. Thomas, MBA, Public Affairs Specialist
Friday, October 25, 2019

“It’s kind of like mixing up a cake recipe and stirring in all of the random ingredients. Alone, you’re not going to eat a cup of flour, but when you mix it all together and stir in the love, hard work, and dedication you get this beautiful cake in the end,” said Erin Todd, music therapist, Bay Pines VA Healthcare System (VAHCS). “I love watching the unfolding of talent as Veterans come together to perform at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival (NVCAF) each year.”

Todd has been accompanying Veterans selected to attend the festival and has coordinated the local Creative Arts Festival at the Bay Pines VAHCS since 2005.

This year, nine Veterans enrolled for care at the Bay Pines VAHCS were invited to attend the national festival and six will travel to Kalamazoo, Michigan to showcase their talents by participating in grand stage show performances, creative writing and visual art exhibitions.

Air Force Veteran Luther Harrison explains that although he lives with depression, the payoff is always worth it.

“Often, I isolate myself. It takes a lot for me to talk myself into different activities, but my standing appointment with Erin each week for music therapy pushes me to be here,” said Harrison, who participates in the group music program at Bay Pines. “My participation in music therapy and at the festival for the last four years has helped me to become more focused and accountable. My groupmates depend on me to be here and to be engaged,” he said.

This year, the music therapy group has been invited to participate in the choral ensemble at the NVCAF. The group submitted three instrumental tone chime pieces to the national competition and received two gold medals and one silver.

“Tone chimes are similar to hand bells that you would hear or see at a church,” said Todd. “They are designed to be accessible and are set up so that anyone can learn. You don’t even need to know how to read music to play the instrument,” she said.  

Air Force Veteran Rebecca Heissler explains that music therapy and the tone chimes have given her a way to enjoy music again.

“I was referred to the music therapy program for mental health purposes and to assist with pain management,” said Heissler. “The first time I came to this group I quickly realized that there is more to it then just playing the chimes,” she said.

Making lifelong connections and camaraderie are additional benefits to the Veterans who take part in the music therapy group as well.

“We don’t have to pretend that everything is ok when we’re in our music therapy group. You’re surrounded by your comrades, people who understand what you might be going through,” said Harrison. “We learn the instrument and laugh amongst our peers. There is never a cross word in our group,” he continued.

Both Harrison and Heisler are looking forward to the NVCAF next week. They are excited to get there and show off their musical skills.

“When you get there you think to yourself, ‘how can all this ever gel?’ Somehow by Sunday everything just comes together like magic,” said Harrison.

For Heissler, reconnecting with old friends and getting to try out for solos is a contributing factor in making the decision to participate in the festival year after year.

“I’ve always been musically inclined and being able to come to this festival each year has given me a way to continue to do what I love,” said Heissler. “I especially enjoy getting to see my family of friends,” she said.

For more information about the music therapy program at the Bay Pines VAHCS or to be involved in the local creative arts competition, please contact Erin Todd at 727-398-6661 X 15884 or email her at: erin.todd@va.gov.

To learn more about the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, please visit: https://www.blogs.va.gov/nvspse/national-veterans-creative-arts-festival/.

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