Finding Therapy in Music

The Kalispell Vet Center collaborated with the Veterans Upward Bound Program and North Valley Music School to launch free guitar lessons for veterans

By Maggie Dresser
Tim Torgerson teaches a guitar class for veterans at the North Valley Music School in Whitefish on March 19, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After spending four years in the United States Marine Corps from 2003 to 2007, Jon Vander Ark finds himself most comfortable homebound, isolated and away from people.

But since he started going to the Kalispell Vet Center, a veteran service offering counseling and community outreach programs, he leaves his house more often so he can participate in therapeutic activities such as fly fishing, pottery and, most recently, guitar lessons.

“It forces me to get out of the house,” Vander Ark said.

The Vet Center organizes recreation and art therapies to help veterans cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which include paddle boarding, skiing and golf.

In collaboration with the North Valley Music School in Whitefish, the Vet Center has begun experimenting with a music program and launched a free guitar program on March 19 in which veterans can take lessons funded by the Veterans Upward Bound Program.

The six-week course meets for two hours a week, where North Valley Music instructor Tim Torgerson teaches vets guitar basics.

“It’s challenging to the brain,” Vander Ark said. “Just running into a problem I can’t fix without somebody else’s help.”

As a pilot program, Kalispell Vet Center Outreach Program Coordinator Adam Jones believes veterans will positively receive the new classes, and he hopes to organize another class this fall.

“We feel that music is beneficial to all because it opens up a part of the brain that communicates through a different highway,” Jones said. “People with traumatic brain injuries typically end up learning a different way of coping.”

After the first class last Thursday, Torgerson says he feels honored to teach veterans guitar lessons.

“I feel really happy to be able to do this for these guys,” he said. “It’s amazing to think of what these vets have given, and to be able to do a simple thing like a guitar class feels like a great honor.”

Not only are the specific program activities therapeutic, Jones says the social interaction between the veterans is also important. The quiet, social settings create a positive atmosphere for veterans, who generally prefer a calm environment, Jones said.

“To come out and be made fun of by other people, it’s the only time we actually laugh … it forces me to have that interaction and (it’s) really helpful,” Vander Ark said.

Jones says he’s had a positive experience collaborating with other organizations in the Flathead Valley to organize activities, especially with the high number of veterans in the area. According to Jones, Flathead County has the highest per-capita veteran population in the state with 11.4%.

“We have a ton of veteran supporters in the community,” Jones said. “We have one of the heaviest populations in the nation per capita (as a state) and we are the heaviest in the state.”

While the coronavirus continues to cause event cancellations, Torgerson says North Valley Music School is committed to following through with the class while adhering to government recommendations.

With five people signed up, only two attended the first class on March 19, and the group of three has practiced social distancing like avoiding handshakes.

As individuals who naturally practice social distancing when there isn’t a health pandemic, class participants are still trying to get out of the house while practicing safe precautions.

“It’s like I told (my wife), ‘Welcome to my world,’” Vietnam Veteran Marty Cole said.

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