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Apr9TueAt the Victoria Addictions and Rehabilitation Centre, a new music program is helping residents gain self-confidence. April 9, 2013 by Kristin Fryer
At first, it was just a few guys playing guitar in the chapel. But the sound of their chords and rhythms travelled down the halls, drawing others in. Soon, more people came, bringing their own instruments, joining in, forming groups, until 18 men were playing together. Guitars, piano, bongos and xylophone—a truly joyful noise.
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“I get goose bumps just thinking about that night,” says Nathan Swartz, chaplain at the Victoria Addictions and Rehabilitation Centre. Swartz co-ordinates the Music Jam program at the centre, which gives clients an opportunity to play musical instruments as part of their recovery. “I wanted to breathe life into the community, and I think music is an essential part of that.”
The idea for Music Jam came to Swartz last May when he noticed some of the clients going into the centre's chapel to play the piano. Thinking that the men might enjoy playing other instruments as well, Swartz found a few guitars and placed them in the chapel. As the men came in to play the instruments, he was amazed by the number of talented musicians he heard. Sensing a ministry opportunity, he started hosting a weekly jam session on Friday afternoons.
It didn't take long to catch on. Within the first month, 10-15 men were showing up each week. “The clients were loving it,” says Swartz. “They thought it was great.”
The program currently offers three acoustic guitars, an electric guitar, electric bass and a set of bongo drums. As the clientele of the shelter has changed over the past year, the format of the program has evolved as well to meet the needs of the community. Instead of a weekly jam session, the shelter now allows clients to sign out the instruments for as long as they like between 12 and 9 p.m. every day. About 20 men sign out instruments on an average day, a significant portion of the 149-bed shelter.
The program attracts musicians of all backgrounds and musical styles. If you visited the centre, you might hear a client playing classical Spanish guitar music, the country-rock jams of Johnny Cash or some old familiar jazz standards. Many of the men also write their own music. Participants are young and old, beginners and experts, and everything in between.
Jason Saumier, who is just learning to play the guitar, signs one out for at least an hour every day. He loves playing because it relaxes him.
“I enjoy it and it's really comforting,” he says. “I'm always in a better mood after I'm done playing.”
Saumier has been living at the centre for the past few months after being released from prison and is undergoing treatment to help him overcome his addiction to drugs.
“I'm not just here for a place to stay,” he says. “I'm here to better myself and learning to play guitar is part of that.
“Playing guitar makes me feel good about myself,” he continues. “If I start practising chords and I'm not too good at them, and then I eventually get them, it increases my confidence.”
Swartz says that boosting self-esteem is one of the primary purposes of the Music Jam program. He sees this in new players who take pride in learning a skill and especially in experienced players who enjoy teaching others how to play.
“If you live in the homeless community long enough, you start to feel worthless,” he says. “But now, if you are talented on the guitar, suddenly you're a pillar of the community. I've noticed a huge change in attitude and self-worth among those men.”
Swartz also notes that the teaching-learning aspect of the program has brought the community at the shelter closer together.
“They now have a shared interest,” he says. “You see guys who normally wouldn't talk to each other sitting together, playing music and learning from each other.”
Saumier often plays on his own, but he also enjoys listening to other people play and collaborating with others at the shelter.
“It makes you more social,” he says. “You get to meet new people and make new friends.”
Playing music also gives clients an outlet for personal expression.
“Being street-entrenched and homeless, many of our clients don't really feel like they have a voice,” says Swartz. “Music gives them an opportunity to have a voice again.”
For people struggling with addictions, Music Jam is particularly helpful as a means to reduce stress and, consequently, drug use.
“It's a great way to relieve stress,” says Dylan Doberstein, a regular participant in the program who has been staying at the shelter for a few months. “Most of the people around here don't have any way to get rid of their stress besides drugs and alcohol. But give them an instrument to play, and it gives them something to do to occupy their time.”
Swartz agrees. “When you're homeless or on the verge of homelessness, you're facing a lot of stress—just finding food each day is a stressful event—and drugs are an easy coping mechanism. Quitting drugs is also very stressful, and when drugs are your only coping mechanism, it becomes very hard to move through that.
“Introducing or reintroducing music into the lives of people struggling with addictions gives them access to a new coping mechanism,” Swartz says. “Whereas drugs were the only answer before, now it could be, 'I'm going to go to the chapel and play the guitar for two hours.' It makes the quitting process a lot easier.”
Looking ahead, Swartz sees many opportunities for expanding the Music Jam program. In particular, he would like to get the musical community of Victoria more involved by having professional musicians come in and be “musical mentors” at the shelter.
The centre recently put out a call for volunteers and has already had one musician offer to teach a harmonica class this summer.
Swartz also encourages the men to develop their own musical projects. Last summer, a group of participants from Music Jam formed their own band, put on a concert at The Salvation Army's High Point Community Church in Victoria and then recorded two songs together.
Working in tandem with the broader program at the centre, Swartz says Music Jam has the power to open the door to all kinds of new possibilities.
“I just love seeing these guys come alive,” he says, “and I think the stronger the program gets, the more life we'll see in the clients. And the more self-esteem they have, the more confident they'll feel to dream and try to accomplish those dreams.”
Photo: Jason Saumier plays guitar with Nathan Swartz, chaplain at the Victoria Addictions and Rehabilitation Centre (Photo: Kevin Light)