How Music is"Striking a Chord" in Healing

Posted by Susan Rockefeller, May 13, 2013 0 comments

Susan Rockefeller Susan Rockefeller

It was through a fluke really that I learned how much the arts-––in this case music––can help military service men and women heal, even those struggling with issues as complex and embedded as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My son, Henry, was taking drum lessons from a musician who’d recently toured Iraq playing for the troops as a part of Nell Bryden’s band. They were headed back for a second tour in a month. He described to Henry and me what it felt like to see these men and women start the evening often withdrawn, sullen and exhausted, then, with the first chord of the guitar, to watch smiles blossom across their faces and their shoulders relax, many of them even jumping out of their chairs to dance. After the show the troops would line up to express their deep gratitude to the band for having volunteered their time to bring them a moment of joy.

Something about this story captured my heart. And while I knew very little at that point about the high rates of suicide amongst our returning service members or about how prevalent PTSD was or even about the true healing powers of music, by the very next day I was already making arrangements to document Nell Bryden’ upcoming tour.

I’m glad my instincts lead me in this direction. Eventually I learned that music could supply more than a moment of joy. It could kickstart a lifetime of profound healing. As Concetta Tomaino from the Institute for Music & Neurologic Function notes “Music reaches the depths of our being – and when our connection to self has been damaged by trauma and loss – music can be a powerful tool to revive us.”

I couldn’t agree more. As I began editing my film I was struck by how music opened up these troops’ hearts and minds. Especially the live performances. The music seemed to act as a conduit between the service members and those around them. This felt profound to me. So often when we are experiencing any sort of suffering, we think we’re alone in that experience and that sense of isolation then heightens the baseline suffering. In other words, our own perceptions of our situation can make us suffer more, albeit unintentionally. Watching these young men and women come together, I could see some of the protective walls they’d build crumbling, even if it was only for the duration of the song. But the fact that it could happen at all was a very promising sign.

And this insight wasn’t purely observational. The troops themselves talked about the benefits they felt they received from live music. Instead of the isolation of listening to music with say an iPod, the communal aspect of the band helped them feel they weren’t forgotten. In part, because the bands had travelled so far on their behalf, and in part, because it created an environment to connect with others.

When I made the film, official estimates were that as many as 300,000 veterans of the Iraq War suffered from PTSD––and I believe those numbers have only gone up. The government is addressing this issue more openly now than they were several years ago and more men and women are receiving the care they need, but it’s still tricky to qualify for many of the programs and the protocols are limited in their approach.

The film has been presented in many festivals and other forums. In touring the film, I have seen first-hand the response from people across all walks of life. People whose eyes were either opened or flashed a glimpse of recognition that we must act on behalf of our troops—and the arts offer a viable pathway to heal the wounds.

The making of the film and the chance to work directly with military leaders on the front line, including Lieutenant Colonel Scott Rainey who was Voice over and POV for the film’s story line. I encountered so many servicemen and women, like LTC Rainey, who are committed to not only maintaining troop morale in the combat zone but supporting them when they return home, it inspired me to become more personally involved in military healing issues and the arts—most recently by participating in the Arts & Health in the Military National Roundtable this past November. My fellow participants from the military, federal agency, health, arts, business and individual philanthropy made recommendations that are included in the national “Blueprint for Action” for increased use of the Arts to meet the challenges of today’s military.

With funding from the David Rockefeller Fund, the Blueprint for Action is serving as the springboard for a national discussion about how we, as a country and as concerned individuals, can work together to make arts programming widely available to service members, veterans, and their families throughout their lifespan and continuum of military service. The report can be downloaded here.

This conversation is being spearheaded by Americans for the Arts and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, with a national steering committee that is developing the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military. I encourage all who care about our troops and veterans to become aware—and get involved.

Whether you believe in the wars we’ve fought or not, these people have still served our country and suffered the consequences. I believe we need to extend to them the kindness and compassion we would extend to anyone who has been traumatized. Recognizing one other’s suffering will help our world heal. I believe music can be a vital part of the process.

For more information please go to and to purchase a DVD of the film, go to:  For more information about the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military, visit, or contact Marete Wester, Director of Arts Policy, Americans for the Arts at

Please login to post comments.