In the Key of Healing

Two years ago, someone called up Arthur Bloom with an unusual request: A badly wounded soldier, a former drummer, wanted to start playing music again. Trouble was, he’d lost a leg in Iraq and couldn’t use his old drum kit. Did Bloom have any ideas?

As it happened, Bloom did have some ideas. He is a classically trained pianist who can mix a rap song, a composer whose work has been performed by the Israel Chamber Orchestra, Def Jam records and everything in between. Tinkering with musical instruments is the kind of thing he does for fun. Bloom went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, met the drummer and rigged up a drum set. Then he went back — again, and then again — until finally he founded a program, Musicorps, designed to teach music to disabled soldiers. It wasn’t just the appeal of “helping veterans” that drew Bloom in. It was also what he learned about what one of his proteges has memorably described as “the healing power of death metal.”

As that phrase perhaps conveys, Bloom’s project isn’t standard music therapy. On the contrary, after working with a few patients at Walter Reed, he realized that a severely injured person doesn’t need just a few guitar lessons or some soothing sounds but, rather, what he calls “real” music: serious, one-on-one, customized training; ongoing collaboration; and professional mentors who can give their co-musicians a sense of purpose, of moving forward. In pursuit of this idea, he persuaded donors to give him instruments, got Apple’s Steve Jobs to donate computers and set up what looks like a mini-recording studio in one of the residential houses at Walter Reed. Bloom started hanging around the house, ready to teach, practice or produce original music with the vets — or, if so required, to rewrite a piece of piano music so that a one-armed veteran could play it with his artificial hand.

The result? Well, there are halls of residence at Walter Reed where depressed young men sit in their rooms and stare at the walls. And then there is the music session I watched recently, during which a young soldier with an artificial leg, shrapnel wounds and no prior musical training practiced complex electric guitar riffs to the pace of an electronic drumbeat. A visiting guitarist kept setting that beat faster and faster, forcing the vet to play faster and faster, until all broke out in howls of laughter. Meanwhile, another soldier, who also has an artificial leg, tinkered with his rap lyrics. He hopes to get one of his songs, mixed and recorded at Walter Reed (“it’s about being blown up in Iraq”), played on the radio.

It was a cheerful scene, but it was more than that, too. Many of the soldiers at Walter Reed sustained some level of brain damage in the explosions that ripped off their arms or legs. Allen Brown, director of brain research and rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic — and a Musicorps adviser — reckons that because the process of learning to play music requires using so many different parts of the brain, it may literally help the brain recover, to compensate for severe injury. Brown is working with Bloom, he told me, to devise a way to “clinically evaluate this process,” not least so that it can be repeated elsewhere. So far more than a dozen veterans have been helped by Musicorps; dozens more want to join. Thousands more could benefit. The word is spreading — the country singer John Rich visited last week — but nothing involving professional musicians can run on volunteer energy forever.

The project is extraordinary on its own — look on the Musicorps Web site for more details — but it carries a constellation of implications. In the spring of 2007, Congress agonized over the fate of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, following a Washington Post investigation into shabby buildings and shabbier bureaucracy at the nation’s main military hospital. The fresh paint and better services that resulted from that scandal are only the beginning of what needs to be done.

It’s been a long, long time since there have been so many wounded Americans to care for, and neither our military nor our government are good at inventing customized recovery programs like Musicorps. Entrepreneurs like Bloom can come up with new solutions; the question is whether our health-care system, and our philanthropic organizations, have become too ossified to support them. In its narrow way, the fate of Bloom’s program will tell a lot about how well we are going to care for the thousands of men and women severely wounded in the wars of the past decade, men and women who will go on needing care for many decades to come.

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