The strumming of a ukulele fills a small music studio in Millersville, and Army veteran Nandkumar Singh starts to sing.
“I think to myself ... what a wonderful world.”
The Gambrills resident has been taking lessons at Priddy Music for 12 weeks now through the Warrior Music Foundation, a charity launched by a Bowie veteran to provide free music lessons, group classes and music therapy to former military members with post-traumatic stress disorder and their families.
Singh served for 35 years, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, and suffers from complications such as sleep apnea and insomnia. He goes to cognitive processing therapy on base and takes medicine at night.
He has found the ukulele to be an effective salve in the evening. His instructor Katharina Acosta says he goes beyond basic efforts and has learned some difficult chords. He laughs and says he will work on his vocals.
The music lessons have worked so well he says he wants to do anything he can to help the foundation, which launched in 2017. He has signed his five children up as well and said it also helps them relax and focus.
He’s also found friends at the studio, all there to talk about one thing: music.
“It’s like osmosis, when you’re in an environment you soak it up,” he said.
He practices every spare moment he has, including in the lobby at the studio when his children are in lessons. The foundation provides instruments, but Singh has since bought his own, a tenor ukulele.
This month the foundation earned the William Donald Schaefer Helping People Award for Prince George’s County from state Comptroller Peter Franchot. Founder and president Michael Carmona said after losing several friends to suicide and seeing the pervasiveness of the issue he felt compelled to act.
“The problem wasn’t being addressed in the veteran community,” Carmona said.
Nationally, 20 veterans die by suicide each day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. He is a musician himself, has experienced music therapy in the past, and knew it could help. His father fought in World War II and had post-traumatic stress, he said. He sees the project as a continuation of his service to America.
Carmona said his half-baked idea to offer free music lessons was fully-baked by Jessica Channell of Helping Harmony Music Therapy, a veteran-owned small business.
Channell said the ways music can help are multi-faceted. It can help with memory, processing trauma and like math, helps the different parts of the brain work together. It’s also a positive coping skill that students can use outside of the studio as well, much like how Singh plays the ukulele to help get to sleep.
Beyond that, students know there is someone looking forward to seeing them each week, and camaraderie is built between student, teachers and fellow students.
The Department of Veterans Affairs National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide lists protective factors for suicide as positive coping skills, feeling connected to other people, having reasons for living or a sense of purpose and having access to mental health care. Warrior Music Project checks those boxes.
Carmona said they offer both structured music therapy and regular lessons, a move meant to attract people who might be reticent to the idea of treatment. It’s a foot in the door. That’s also one reason why they extend the free lessons to children — mom or dad might need the therapy and be drawn into participating if their child participates.
Right now 40 people are taking lessons, and 20 more have been assessed for the program, he said. Another 20 are on a waitlist. The program offers lessons at three locations in Maryland and two in Pennsylvania.
“We know the potential is there to expand, and we want to do it smartly,” he said.
They already have one student who says her life was saved by the program; Jessica Kuyatt of Millersville, who has post-traumatic stress from military sexual trauma, which is sexual assault or harassment during service.
Kuyatt said she joined the program during a difficult time in her life, and she said the lessons saved her.
The guitar player and vocalist worked with her instructor to write songs, which she has used as an outlet to express her thoughts and feelings. Her instructor was playing the tune, and words just popped out of her, she said. She was able to describe the transformation in her life through music.
“I never would have been able to articulate that,” she said. “It just kind of poured out of me. It’s a different way of thinking of things.”
Carmona’s goal is to grow the program to 100 students actively taking lessons by the end of the year, and sustain it at that level. That kind of growth will require between $200,000 and $300,000, but Carmona isn’t discouraged — he wants the foundation to go national one day.