The Healing Power of Music

Research has shown again and again the undeniable healing power of music. One Interlochen alumnus is providing tangible evidence of that power, through work with soldiers who have sustained life-changing injuries on the field of battle, helping them find focus, voice and hope through conservatory-level training in music.

Arthur Bloom, an Interlochen Arts Camp alumnus, professional musician, and composer, launched MusiCorps after meeting a soldier who had lost his leg to an improvised explosive device in Iraq. “He had been a drummer, and was concerned about how he would ever play the drums again, among other very big concerns,” says Bloom. “His life was literally blown up in every sense of the word. When I talked to him, of course my reaction was – like anyone else’s would be – how may I help?”

Unbeknownst to the soldier, Bloom already had experience in teaching musicianship in nontraditional settings, having worked with underserved children in Albany, New York to help them learn and perform with world-class, professional musicians. Bloom began working with the soldier, helping find ways to ensure that drumming could remain an important part of his life. From this experience, MusiCorps was born.

Bloom’s efforts soon earned national attention. The Wall Street Journal called MusiCorps “a revolutionary program to help war veterans adjust to postwar life” and Bloom was named a CNN Hero in 2014. The real testament to the program’s success, though, has been the hundreds of veterans who have found solace in an exceptional training and performance program.  

“Music has so many facets to it,” Bloom says. “It has rigor. It has purpose and joy. We give these soldiers the tools they need, and with their amazing grit, resilience and talent, they play their hearts out and get tremendous benefits from the experience.”

MusiCorps serves soldiers undergoing care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, matching them with musician mentors and helping them either regain the ability to play an instrument or learn one for the first time. Those mentors have included world class musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma, and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, as well as highly talented local musicians.

The musicians who volunteer their time to work with and train the veterans are key to the success of MusiCorps, Bloom says. “The musicians have been generous and supportive. It’s truly humbling.”

The program also gives musician mentors a new perspective on their own skill set. “Professional musicians have tremendous training and a lot to offer people,” Bloom says. A project like MusiCorps helps focus interest and dialogue on the use of music in public service. “There’s a definite interest in it with organizations like ours,” Bloom adds. “It’s a tremendously gratifying thing for a musician to do on every level.”   

The importance of support from other musicians has been mirrored in the other valuable partnerships that have arisen as a result of the program. “MusiCorps itself is a partnership program,” Bloom says. “It’s like a musical conservatory within a military hospital, so there is a partnership with the military. We’ve worked with the Bob Woodruff Foundation. The Grand Ole Opry has been really supportive. Musicians from the United States Marine Corps Band have been helping. Holidays for Heroes, which helps wounded vets move on with their lives in a number of ways, also has helped. We can only do this thanks to all of the wonderful organizations who also help the people we work with.”

The results can be dramatic, in terms of physical and emotional recovery. “One badly injured soldier we met was virtually incommunicative, and I didn’t think we’d even be able to work with him,” Bloom says. But then “one day he picked up a guitar and never put it down. Sometimes he’d play for over 10 hours a day.” Later, the same young man discovered Beethoven’s Sonatas on YouTube and began playing piano as well. “He started talking again and joking again. It was an amazing transformation.”

The need for MusiCorps remains, in part because more soldiers than ever are facing the aftermaths of truly grievous injuries. “Battlefield medicine is getting better and better, and that’s a great thing,” Bloom says. “But it also means more surviving wounded soldiers are returning, and a person could be at Walter Reed for years with little to do aside from their treatment.”

MusiCorps is ready to fill that void with enthusiasm for the program growing among the veterans as well as the mentor musicians with whom they work. “The response to MusiCorps has been overwhelming,” Bloom says, “with many veterans telling us that this became a core part of their rehab at Walter Reed.”

According to Bloom, a good number of veterans become highly skilled as musicians.  “A lot of them get really, really good,” he says, with some of the mentor musicians calling them “Super Students.”

The veterans have a chance to show off their skills in the MusiCorps Wounded Warrior Band, the performance component of MusiCorps. They have performed with Yo-Yo Ma, Roger Waters, and Sheryl Crow, at the Grand Ole Opry as well as the Kennedy Center, Madison Square Garden, on The Colbert Report, and at an unforgettable, televised Memorial Day concert with the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra in front of an audience of 50,000. “When the band performs, it’s not at all a sob story,” says Bloom. “They’re amazing.”

In the future, Bloom hopes to expand MusiCorps to serve more soldiers at Walter Reed and ultimately recreate the program at other military hospitals around the country. That will take more musician mentors, a call that Bloom hopes other performers, including perhaps some Interlochen graduates, will answer.

The heart of the program will remain, always, with the soldiers it serves. “Their musical progress is amazing, and you can watch their progress in so many ways in, and even beyond, the music,” Bloom says. “We have even had veterans report improvements in dexterity, improving the use of their fingers through playing. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, it can be a powerful transformation.”

From strumming on a guitar to wailing on a drum kit to moving seamlessly across a keyboard, soldiers are finding new ways to express themselves and find physical and emotional solace in song. “There are visible and invisible scars of war,” Bloom says. “Everyday we see that music can help.”