JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON —
Most years, Anchorage has live music in parks throughout the summer. Most years, there are all kinds of concerts, large and small, throughout the community. Most years, the 9th Army Band is part of it all – playing during Memorial Day ceremonies at the Delaney Park Strip, marking the solstice and 4th of July celebrations, or just providing a little lunchtime music for people in downtown Anchorage. This, of course, isn’t most years.
Instead, like most people, the Soldiers of the band were kind of stuck – caught in the back-and-forth of planning for an event, evaluating how to mitigate risks, deciding the risks were too great. COVID-19 has made 2020 a difficult year for everyone. And yet, the band plays on.
One project the Soldiers have been involved in since 2017 is a partnership with the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Hospital’s Traumatic Brain Injury clinic. Creative Forces is a music-therapy program helping service members and dependents recover and rehabilitate using the power of music.
COVID-19 threw a spanner in that, too – but the Soldiers have leveraged technology to make it work.
Sgt. Richard Walburn, a pianist and vocalist with the band, works with two patients – one a classically trained pianist, the other a vocalist. He started working with them both in February, just in time for their initial plans to crash. Everything now needed to be done remotely.
“The biggest challenge was definitely the technology stuff,” Walburn said. “Trying to help someone with vocals when there’s a three-second lag is tough. Normally, we would sit together and do 10 minutes of warm-up together, but we couldn’t really do that. She found songs she liked, and I got backing tracks on YouTube, so she could put that on and sing. It’s not just about the tone of your voice, it’s also about timing, so getting rid of the lag was critical. We had to work out which applications would work best for sound, too.”
The sessions have already helped, Walburn said.
“Breathing is really important for calming ourselves down, but for a vocalist, it’s also the fuel. So working on her breathing techniques is the most useful for her. She said she’s taking the things we work on and using it in other situations. It’s really rewarding to work with them and see them take those skills and apply them differently.”
Walburn, a native of Columbia, South Carolina, is primarily in the rock quintet. Working with a classically trained pianist is a little different, he said, but not much.
“Mostly we’re helping people get back into a social pattern and work on communication skills. With a traumatic brain injury, doing pattern recognition is important for helping the brain recover. Sometimes I describe something but don’t use the word – I can see he knows what I mean, but I wait for him to pull up the word. And I can see the lights clicking back on. It’s been really great to see, from one week to the next, how he’s holding on to stuff.”
Danielle Kalseth, 673d Medical Operations Squadron creative arts and music therapist], has really helped us with figuring out logistics, and she’s helped steer us in directions for teaching. Seeing how to make it work for people is really rewarding.
"I also enjoy just being able to talk music, especially these days.”
Kelseth said she has also noticed the Music Mentorship program bearing fruit.
“Even with the small subject group we’re working with, we’re noticing decreases in isolation, and more positive outcomes,” she said. “Not every base has a military band, and I feel extremely lucky to have them here, and that they want to collaborate and partner and do things.” In addition to the mentorship program, the band has played for Kelseth's classes in mindfully listening to music.
Spc. William Hendrix, a guitarist originally from Greenville, South Carolina, has played with the quintet for Creative Forces, but misses working with youth in the Music In Our Schools projects.
“We would go to schools in the early mornings; we used to do clinics with the students. Getting hands-on and working with them was enjoyable,” Hendrix said. “We haven’t been able to make that work yet. But we’re still recording, we’re still doing outreach.
“We were hoping, earlier this year, to do a tour – go up to Fairbanks and around Alaska. We still hope to do that later. The band moved here from Fairbanks a few years ago, and we’re still kind of new in the community. We want to be in the community, out playing and entertaining people.”
Given the restrictions on gatherings and live music, the band – which would normally be doing just that – has turned to social media to spread the love and music.
Sgt. Joseph Agacinski, a bassoonist, has turned his attention to learning how to leverage technology to bring the band to the people. He and other band members are working to get more videos of the band posted on social media – they're working on a Veterans Day piece at the moment.
“We really appreciate having someone like [Sgt. Agacinski],” Walburn said. “We can’t perform live, so he has created ways for us to engage. We’ve put out videos on Facebook. We’ve been coached to play live – now our guys are learning to be sound technicians, and we’re all learning how to sound better when we’re recorded.
“We’re applying new stuff to our mission. We keep working, no matter what.”