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Local orchestra engages vulnerable populations through music therapy

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Rachel Showalter
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A participant in the Co-Creation project paints as classical music plays in the background

This month, a local orchestra performed its fifth iteration of a project that uses music to connect people on the Central Coast with a greater community and improve their mental health.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, music therapy can help people process depression, schizophrenia and trauma. It can even be calming for people with anxiety or dysregulation.

Every year, Orchestra Novo collaborates with a different community organization to provide music therapy to people who live on the Central Coast.

This time, it was at the San Luis Obispo Senior Center. It seemed like a quiet afternoon from the outside, but walking indoors, the classical music of Bach and Ravel flooded the building.

More than a dozen people were deep in art projects. They were all chatting while painting on individual canvases.

These folks were all clients of Transitions Mental Health Association. These adults are living with mental illness and they were letting the music guide their expression.

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Rachel Showalter
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Clients of Transitions Mental Health Association filled the San Luis Obispo Senior Center for the Co-Creation project.

“This is another way that people get to tell their story. And at Transitions Mental Health Association, telling our story is something that is very empowering and really just so necessary in the recovery journey,” said Transitions Mental Health Community Engagement Director Michael Kaplan.

The non-profit partnered with Orchestra Novo to facilitate this project, called Co-Creation. It was an opportunity for diverse groups of people to listen to classical music while expressing their emotions through painting.

“The idea is to work with vulnerable populations and inspire them to create art by playing music,” Kaplan said.

That finished art was then incorporated into a live musical performance by the orchestra. Photos of the paintings were displayed on a screen above the musicians as they played the same musical compositions that inspired the art.

“We take them home. We let them dry. And then they’re photographed. Once they’re photographed, they’re put on a disc and then that disc is played on a big screen at the concert hall,” said Orchestra Novo Artistic Director Michael Nowak.

Orchestra Novo has been together since 2015. Nowak said the Co-Creation Project is one of the most important efforts they organize every year because it’s an opportunity for the orchestra to connect with the community and for people to connect with each other.

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Rachel Showalter
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Tyler Lord Hamilton holds up his Co-Creation painting

“It’s very interesting to see how they release their inner thoughts and feelings through the artwork,” Nowak said.

Nowak said they’ve done the Co-Creation Project with at-risk youth, kids on the Autism spectrum and people with Alzheimer’s disease. He said the music has a way of bringing out a wide range of emotions from everyone, despite their different life experiences.

“And yet the same kinds of outpourings of creative spirit came. The music did that,” Nowak said.

Nowak said he’s seen paintings expressing sadness, rejection, heartbreak, tragedy. But he’s also seen expressions of joy and hope..

“[These are things] that they don’t like to talk about verbally but they can express visually,” Nowak said.

He said the program is multifaceted because it also helps introduce people to classical music who may otherwise never listen to it.

“So everybody gets the benefit of this," Nowak said. "And it’s very emotional and very touching to everybody that’s participated.”

Nowak said classical music is an outlet for his own personal expression and he hopes the music does that for other people too.

Tyler Lord Hamilton was a participant in the program. His painting featured large red and black swirls. He said his art embodies his recent emotional stressors.

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Rachel Showalter
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Jordan's Co-Creation painting featured a nondescript stage.

“I live with bipolar 2, extreme anxiety. I’m on five medications… It means a lot that we have this painting experience,” Hamilton said.

Jordan was another participant. They use they/them pronouns and didn’t share their last name. Their painting featured a stage — something they said was inspired by the classical music. They painted a chair in the middle of the stage that’s intentionally difficult to make out.

“The meaning I was really trying to give it is like this stage of life," Jordan said. "You don’t really know exactly what’s happening, but you’re still present.”

Jordan said they loved the experience of the Co-Creation Project. It was social and tranquil — a space they say really inspired their art.

The participants’ artwork was displayed at a live Orchestra Novo concert at Cuesta College in early April.

You can find art and music from previous Co-Creation Projects on the Orchestra Novo website. Nowak said he hopes to continue sharing Co-Creation with the community in years to come.

Rachel Showalter first joined KCBX as an intern from Cal Poly in 2017. During her time in college, she anchored and reported for Mustang News at Cal Poly's radio station, KCPR. After graduating, she took her first job as a Producer at KSBY-TV. She returned to the KCBX team in October 2020 and now reports daily for KCBX News. Rachel spends her off-days climbing rocks, cooking artichokes and fighting crosswords with friends.
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