"Fighting for Quality of Life. Armed With Music"
As a youngster of only 10 or 11, Beckville native Ashley Brightwell had an intense interest in music. “I spent all my money in the record store,” he says. “I would go in and browse and buy both favorites and ones I didn't know anything about. In class at school, I was the guy who was always passing out mixtapes to everyone.”
Ashley loved growing up in Beckville, where he graduated from high school in 1998. The son of Paul Brightwell and Kathy Worley, he says, “It was a great place to grow up. I had great parents and a great family. We lived on a farm, and I dearly loved all the animals. Nature was a huge part of my life then (and now, too).” He attended Panola College and Tyler Junior College before finishing his education at UT Arlington's School of Architecture in 2004. In architecture school, Ashley used music as a way to block out the rest of the world and really focus while creating architectural designs.
It was during this period that he began to see the correlation between the music we listen to and our moods and what we accomplish. “A little later I started writing for a music blog called Waxhole out of Austin/Dallas. I began getting into the music scene in Dallas, Austin, and Houston, getting to know musicians, producers and promoters of new songs and music,” he says. “I saw hundreds of thousands of people getting into this type of outlet, and I wanted to find a way to use the power of music to activate these people to higher callings, to do better things in their community.”
Ashley found his pathway to that goal. Working now in Dallas as Architectural Consultant/Director of Quality Assurance for a multifamily residential developer, he says, “I enjoy my work as an architect, and the side benefit is that it provides me the time and money to put toward this passion project.” That beloved passion project is a non-profit organization he began a few years ago alongside co-founder J.P. Maloney called Music Is Our Weapon, and it is receiving national prominence in the field of music for medicine and therapy.
The mission of MIOW is to provide a sustainable source of music in all health care environments to increase the quality of life of the patients. While most of the music care opportunities addressed by MIOW are in memory care/dementia and Alzheimers units, there are equal opportunities for music therapy in areas like autism, post-traumatic stress, depression, terminal illness, and psychiatric issues. Several premises are set forth by MIOW; one is that what sets a care facility apart is the emotional care it provides. Pharmaceuticals can keep people alive, but quality of life is just as important, and music can make a huge impact in increasing emotional well-being even in the middle of terrible hardship. Even a single song can alter an entire state of mind.
MIOW is providing access to meaningful music to these patients through the use of inexpensive “burner” smart phones with headphones and totally individualized playlists derived through outlets like Spotify. One of the biggest benefits to the program is this individualization, created mainly through one-on-one volunteer music discovery with the help of a questionnaire filled out by family or other loved ones, or sometimes the patient himself if there is sufficient cognition and speech, and sometimes simply by looking at the patient's age and the music popular during his prime years. The questionnaire includes preferred music genres, musicians, songs, hobbies, interests, jobs, military service, and heritage, so it is very valuable to volunteers preparing the playlists when that information is available. Another huge benefit is that the activity is easy for caregivers when compared with other more labor-intensive, less impactful activities. “We give them a full set-up that they can start using immediately,” explains Ashley. “We are using technology that’s already available very inexpensively to fill a huge void that needs to be filled immediately.”
“It is amazing to witness people who haven't spoken a word in months begin singing while listening to favorite music which is bringing back memories for them,” he continues, “and people barely able to walk on a walker stand up and start moving and dancing along to those same tunes.” They are also seeing increased connectivity between the patients and family members when it is possible for family to join in the listening. The organization is also partnering in some clinical trials to try to measure the therapeutic value of their program in scientific ways; for example, in terms of lowered amounts of psychosis medications and reports of less agitation and greater calm with use of the music therapy. Still, he repeats, “The most important thing is adding some quality of life for people who often have very little of it. Bringing back memories through the power of music to people who have access to very few memories. Providing a good solid go-to activity that's very easy to apply and brings big benefits.”
While personalized music care is the core pillar of Music Is Our Weapon, the group has also dabbled in some programs that share the same wonder and power of music to underserved youth in Dallas that they hope to expand. In one of these, musicians and MIOW staff went on a weekly basis after school to work with underprivileged youth on formulating lyrics to express their feelings and goals. They then worked with them on producing the music, took them to a local studio, Audia Creatives, to record the songs they had created, and were able to visit the Trammel Crow Museum to perform the music live.
Ashley is also making quite a name for himself in helping homeless people in Dallas through music. As he has encountered homeless people, he has used questions about what kind of music they like and discussions about music to open the door to getting to know them, as a catalyst for further conversation on the street. He then invites them to meet him at a library or restaurant with wi-fi access “to pick up something they can play their music on.” He provides them with one of the disposable smart phones, but little do they know they are receiving a lot more than a music player. He teaches them how to use it, not only as a phone, but to set up an e-mail address and use some of the many benefits the internet has to offer. “These people are so much more likely to move into a job and out of homelessness if they are connected like the rest of us,” says Ashley. “The benefits that this $20 to $30 smart phone offers are amazing. How can someone get a job if he can't be contacted or have a way to communicate? How can he even know where to look without internet capability? We can do something to help the people in our own backyard if we really want to. The technology and the tools are there. It only takes something as simple as a wi-fi capable device and a little bit of time to change someone's life forever. We just need to engage, engage, engage!” He shared one of these experiences on Facebook, and the producer of the movie, “Same Kind of Different as Me” about the relationship that developed between a wealthy international art dealer and a homeless man, saw it. He invited Ashley to be guest of honor and to tell his story at a Fort Worth gala and fundraising event promoting the movie.
He was also a presenter recently at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, the huge multi-industry conference of people in film, arts, media, technology, music, health care, and other disciplines. He hosted a panel discussion on “Music as Medicine: The Therapeutic Benefits,” which included Dr. Michael Zanders, Coordinator of Music Therapy at Texas Women's University; nationally known cognitive neuroscientist and opera singer Indre Viskontas; and an Austin-based caregiver who has been using the MIOW program. He was also able to launch another concept at SXSW in a project called “Your Song” through a local Austin song healer, Ashley Monical, and a music-based substance abuse recovery program called Recovery Unplugged. Participants were asked to write a word that came to mind, free-write thoughts about the word, then take a few minutes to edit, circling thoughts to keep and crossing out ones to delete. Their words were given to Ms. Monical and then sung back to them. Afterwards, they were provided with a musical recording of “their song” to keep. Ashley describes getting to see their reaction to hearing their own song as one of his most moving experiences.
Ashley's total devotion to sustaining and expanding Music Is Our Weapon is obvious. “We're dabbling in lots of different things,” he says. “But memory care is our primary focus. There is a lack of consistent access to personally sentimental music in most healthcare environments, and this absence of music also creates a void for the care and research that is rooted in its therapeutic benefits. Music is Our Weapon has set out to fill this void. Fighting for quality of life. Armed with music.”