On Monday nights at a tiny music venue beside the railroad tracks in San Marcos, Texas, a group of veterans gather. One by one, they'll share the songs they've written -- songs about war, songs about love, songs about life. For some, it's the first time they've ever performed in public. For others, it's an opportunity to share a new song they've been working on. It's all part of Soldier Songs and Voices, a non-profit that provides free music lessons and songwriting workshops for veterans.
Soldier Songs and Voices was founded by Grammy-nominated Texas singer songwriter Dustin Welch in 2011. Welch was inspired to create the program after writing his song "Sparrows," about a returning Vietnam War veteran. Each time he performed the song, veterans would approach him and express their interest in learning to play music. He organized a weekly workshop at Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos. Since then, the program has spawned five chapters throughout the U.S. and one chapter in Australia.
"We decided to hold (workshops) in a music venue as a way of allowing them to get out an socialize. To be in a more social environment." Welch says. "Pretty soon, folks started writing songs of their own -- really profound, amazing songs and would tell their stories that way."
For the workshops, Dustin enlisted his father Kevin Welch, whose songs have been recorded by Waylon Jennings, Randy Travis and Trisha Yearwood. Several other central Texas songwriters quickly got on board with the program, creating workshops at legendary dance hall Gruene Hall and Austin's Saxon Pub. Cheatham Street Warehouse, a songwriters haven known for its weekly songwriters circle (and for being the place where George Strait played some of his first gigs), was the perfect venue for home base.
How Music Helps
If hearing a song has ever brightened your day or made you cry, you've experienced the effect music has on the brain. Research shows that music can improve movement in stroke patients and those people with Parkinson's disease. Patients with language or cognitive difficulty have also shown improvement when treated with neurological music therapy. The way the brain processes music, which involves complex perception and motor control, actually works to retrain the brain.
There's a long history of using music therapy to treat veterans. During World War I and II, musicians performed for vets in hospitals and doctors took notice of the positive impact music had on patients. Today, VA hospitals employ about 50 music therapists around the country. In 2013, Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence developed a music therapy program.
Soldier Songs and Voices is unique in that it also helps veterans create their own lyrics as a form of expression and therapy.
Welch said the organization begins with teaching music theory, which veterans tend to learn quickly.
"I think one thing about folks that are more inclined towards a military career, I think they've got more of a kind of built in discipline to really work hard," Welch says. "They're a little more structured in the way that they learn."
The workshops teach song structure and encourage participants to reflect by free writing and getting their thoughts down on paper. Welch said he's witnessed how expressing thoughts and memories through song has benefited veterans who've experienced traumatic events.
"It allows folks to maybe talk about things that they wouldn't just be able to sit down and tell somebody," Welch says. "They put it in a song and what's captured in that song is contained. It's not bouncing around in their brain all the time, waking them up in the middle of the night."
The clip below shows a 2011 Soldier Songs and Voices performance at Cheatham Street Warehouse.
Welch said the program has been equally enlightening to the civilian population.
"It's educating the civilian population who may not otherwise have any concept of what military life is like," Welch says. "The more open the communication that we have to bridge that divide the better off we'll be."
Soldier Songs and Voices is held every Monday night from 5-7 p.m. at Cheatham Street Warehouse. For information on other chapters or on how to open up a chapter in your area visit here.