Since 1975, the Baltic Street Mental Health Center in Brooklyn has provided its clients with an exciting and rewarding music therapy program. Now an assistant adjunct professor of music therapy at NYU, Peter Jampel leads the program. He says, “The purpose of music therapy is to improve self-esteem, expressive and communications skills, and improve social skills through using music as a means of communication and expression.”

The program has changed from a modest “community sing-along” between staff and consumers to the Baltic Street Band featuring keyboards, bass, lead guitars, drums, and other instruments. Consumers from Baltic Street, Peter and several music therapy interns serve as musicians and vocalists in the band.

Community music at Baltic Street, Peter explains, hopes to involve, invite and get the audience to share their musical talents, recite a poem or share whatever the band’s performance has inspired in them. That’s why there is usually an “open mike” after the Baltic Street Band performs. This encourages people to express themselves and gives them a sense of belonging to a community.

“We do not want,” Peter says, “to inhibit people from music performance. We want them to say, ‘I want to do that.’ We want to inspire and challenge. Our performance should challenge people to evolve, experiment, take risks, and try new styles and sounds.”

The Baltic Street Band has performed in many venues, from hospital audiences, psychosocial clubhouses, public parks, a Spanish Tapas restaurant in Brooklyn, and many others places where we (I sing in the band too) have been invited.

When I ask Peter what the audience should expect from a performance by the Baltic Street Band, he quickly asserts, “We are going to give them our best and try to connect to the audience, and find meaning and connect to ourselves and lift everybody and ourselves up.”

Currently, there are two music therapy interns from NYU with the Baltic Street Band, Yanal Kazan and Ofri Eliaz. Ariel Avissar, an expectant graduate from NYU, still performs with the group. Also Jerome Clovington, an intern from the Fort Hamilton Center, has recently joined the band as a musician, composer and audio technician.

Interns for the Music Therapy program are chosen based on their personalities as well as their musical and technical skills. Peter prefers a balance between students who are majoring in either voice or a musical instrument.

The consumer musicians…

Felicia Ali has been with the band for two years. She says, “My main focus in my music is finding my emotional and spiritual connection to the piece I am singing. I sing ballads, jazz, gospel and some funk. The feelings and ideas I want to express are reflected in my original songs.”

Jenny Ayala has been with the band for over ten years and proudly tells me that she is one of the original members. “I love to sing Broadway songs and jazz because that is the type of music that I like and it brings me joy.”

Richard Geiser has been a band member for close to a year and a performer for “a number of years,” he confides. “I love playing the keyboard. I like singing ballads and, together with the piano, I am at peace with my mind, body and soul. The reason for this is the gift from God and for the love of my dad, who inspires me a great deal to love music. To love music is to love God.”

Mathew Lieberman, who has been with the band for six years, says that being with the band helps him to overcome his problem with depression. “The band has been instrumental in giving me a routine,” he affirms. “This routine has kept me young, focused and caring unlike any other program. It’s okay to feel depressed knowing that in a few days I will feel better.”

George Peets, a band member for over ten years, plays the bass and is awed at the talent of the band members who play “an international selection of music.” He says, “I’ve never been with a band that connects to healing through music for people with mental illness, but it works when given a chance.”

Loretta Ferguson likes to literally “rock the house to its feet” with her strong voice and stage presence. She loves good old Rock n’ Roll. Songs from the Rolling Stones have become her signature.

Eva Rabi pleases the audience with her unique soprano voice, and Avra Furman creates her own versions of Frank Sinatra songs. Mary Anne Ronney can belt out a Broadway tune and a Beatle’s song as well.

As for me, I choose pop songs that I like and feel are good for my voice range. The band is just another fun and positive thing to fill my life with.

I think we all perform for our own sense of self-worth and, yes, we also love the applause from a pleased audience.