Music Therapy of the Rockies to host songwriting retreat for veterans
When the longtime Aspen-based folk singer and music therapist Mack Bailey works with military veterans, one of the first exercises he has them do it to hold their index finger on a guitar’s high E string and pull it up toward the D string, hold the tension between them and then lower it back down.
“We’ll do that a couple of times and 100% of the time they equate that to using their trigger finger,” Bailey explained. “It’s another way for us to reframe what they’ve become accustomed to through their military experience.”
Bailey founded the nonprofit Music Therapy of the Rockies in 2019 and has focused the small upstart’s mission in its first three years on military veterans, treating post-traumatic stress disorder with songwriting.
Focused on evidence-based techniques, Bailey – a board-certified music therapist who earned a masters degree from Colorado State University – focuses his work on coping mechanisms that vets can use when PTSD symptoms come up.
At Music Therapy of the Rockies retreats, he hosts small groups of veterans and pairs each with a professional songwriter – over the course of two days, they write a song together. This month the nonprofit is hosting its first local retreat at WindWalkers horse ranch in Carbondale (May 20-22) in partnership with the Western Slope Veterans Coalition.
The nonprofit also recently released its first anthology, “Songs from the Farm,” collecting 12 songs written by vets on Music Therapy of the Rockies retreats (see sidebar). A powerful collection of stories, they tackle the timeless themes of family and love and loss along with some autobiographical compositions about military service and the homefront. The piano ballad “Sacrifice,” written by vet-songwriter L. Rabon (a retired U.S. Army Ranger) and Chris Nole, performed by singer Michael Lusk, is about forms of sacrifice from making ends meet to support a family to public service and asks in its chorus, “What would you do for the one ones that you love?” The song “New Mission” opens “Duty calls in many ways/I chose to serve the fallen” and details a serviceman’s work in honor guard taking bodies of killed service members home to their families.
Bailey has hosted past retreats in Nashville, Massachusetts and Atlanta, each time settling in a farm-like environment. Participants receive musical instruction and leave with a song.
“My goal is not to teach them a bunch of songs and chords and things like that,” Bailey said, “but, more importantly, coping skills.”
They each also sign as professional songwriters with a professional organization like ASCAP, enabling them to collect royalties on their songs.
“It also puts their first song in their catalog, which hopefully empowers them and motivates them to continue writing,” Bailey explained.
At the WindWalkers retreat, he will pair five local veterans with five local songwriters. They’ll explore their stories with their songwriting partners and play a new guitar given to them at the start of the weekend.
“The idea is, ‘When you were in the military, you had a weapon and that weapon was a rifle and it saved your life,” Bailey said. “This guitar is now your weapon, and it’s going to save your life.”
Traditionally, the retreat ends with a concert.
“They always tell me in the beginning, ‘I’m not getting on stage!'” Bailey recalled. “And I’m like, ‘You don’t have to do anything.’ And by the end of it, every single one of them gets on stage to share their story, sing along to the song with the songwriter, sometimes play guitar. It’s pretty powerful.”
Bailey’s group did cancel its in-person retreats is spring 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, but got back to them as soon as they could in October 2020.
“This isolation and the anxiety that COVID brought on was detrimental,” Bailey said. “So we felt like this is an opportunity to, if we follow protocol, to continue holding retreats in person.”
Before he founded Music Therapy of the Rockies, Bailey worked with vets through other local nonprofits like Huts for Vets and Challenge Aspen. He is hopeful that his group can be part of a growing ecosystem of complementary organizations serving veterans including those organizations and Challenge America, which also hosts retreats based around music.
The compilation album “Stories and Songs from the Farm,” a collection of 12 songs written by veterans on Music Therapy of the Rockies retreats, is now available at musictherapyoftherockies.org
The nonprofit is asking for a $100 donation for the album, with proceeds going toward the nonprofit’s ongoing $275,000 album release campaign running through the end of June.
The “Songs from the Farm” album release came during the launch of a $275,000 fundraising campaign for the Music Therapy of the Rockies, which Bailey believes will help the organization grow its retreats and its reach.
“We’re hoping to keep expanding where we do our retreats because it’s a very good model,” he said. “I would like to be in a position of experimenting with branching into other forms of PTSD, other demographics, like domestic abuse or childhood trauma.”
And the album release could be the first of many. Regardless, there will be more songs from the farm.
“If this is a success, it’s something we can do every year,” he said. “We’ll have always have new songs from every retreat.”