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The Impact of War

Economic Prospects for Veterans

May 25, 2011

Music therapy dates back to ancient times. In our country, the process of healing through music took off after World War I, when it was used in veteran's hospitals to ease the pain and suffering of trauma victims. Today, music therapy remains a viable form of treatment for veterans who have physical and emotional problems. Local radio station WXPN seems to have had this in mind when they launched a program called Project Playback. Taking music therapy to a new level, they've introduced some of the region's oldest and frailest veterans to the art of songwriting with the help of a Grammy award-winning artist. For WHYY's Impact of War series, Jennifer Lynn reports.

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It's naptime - at the Veterans Community Living Center, a retirement home in West Philly. But there's nary a yawn in a large, sunny gathering space for about 20 residents…as singer songwriter Scot Sax enters the room.

Scot: "All right, all right, how you doing? How's everybody doin'?

Sax sets down his guitar and a laptop. A semi-circle of men and women, mostly in wheelchairs, fans out in front of him. It's a cast of the serene and the silver-haired, holding instruments - there are claves, maracas, and clusters of bells.

Scot: "All right, let's start some kinda groove."

For the past few months, Sax has volunteered to write and record original songs with this crew. It's a far cry from warming up for The Who or writing songs for country greats like Faith Hill and Tim McGraw - both of which Sax has done.

Scot: "I realized that I was about to embark on a writing session with folks between the ages of 80 and a hundred…that don't play instruments. I'm not sure how present they are at all times. Some of their heads are turned or their eyes are shut. Or they're slouched over…and then you start a song and they pick up a maraca or a tambourine and, honest to god, their rhythm is dead on the money. They are completely there. They just needed to be activated and music is a great activator."

Sax is onto something, says staff psychologist Aggie Kleczek. Residents here at the CLC, many of whom have dementia, often find it difficult to listen to complex language and to express themselves. But with music, it's different.

"This is the one thing that engages them and makes them feel a little bit more that they are a part of the environment and they can respond and enjoy it."

Music helps in another way, say Kleckek. Veterans with dementia and PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, risk losing coping skills to deal with instrusive memories, as their cognition declines.

"They become easily agitated, have anger outbursts, and I think the music is a way to allow them to focus on something pleasurable. It's providing them with something that they can experience and allow them to disengage from some of the negative memories."

Today, Sax has a hard time getting folks to open up. He leads by example: playing his own songs or strumming basic chords in hopes that something bubbles up…a word, a line, anything that resembles lyrics.

Scot: "These are words from last week's song…sitting around with old heroes, rehashing memories. I can't forget the famous vet you forgot to remember. That was from you, Miss BB (hear her say I don't remember). Exactly, you forgot to remember the forgetting to remember line. "

Scot: "I'm connecting with this woman, Miss BB. Miss BB is the most verbal. She was a nurse in the war. It was hard for her to see some of the things she saw and she's kinda made it a practice, as she put it, forgetting to remember. I mean who knows what she's seen."

I find out Miss BB was an Army nurse in World War II and the Korean War. She likes to read the Bible, and when she was young, she'd make up songs.

Miss BB: "If you're in a situation and something's happening, instead of worrying about it, you could write a song about it. It relieves you of depression and stuff. Write a song and get it off your mind. Music is medicine for the soul!"

Miss BB's adage rings true for Sax who says music is the great connector.

Scot: "You can meet somebody that you have nothing in common with whatsoever, you have completely opposite lives, but as soon as the music starts, we have everything in common."

In the unlikely coming together of Sax and this group, the blues is the muse Sax has been hoping for.

Scot: "Mr. Broderick, you got anything for me? We need something to kick it off. You got any magic phrases?"

- the man singing the blues

Sax says songwriting's an easy equation. All you have to do is tell the truth and mean it. No need to tell that to this man with the magic phrases.

I'm Jennifer Lynn, WHYY News.

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