Captivating. Moving. Human. These are just a few words to describe Vijay Gupta’s Trailblazer session on Thursday night, sponsored by Cigna. Vijay Gupta is a violinist, educator, and activist whose efforts to merge music with mental health are changing the world, note by note. His organization, Street Symphony, serves to connect with individuals recovering from homelessness and incarceration through music. He divided up his session by playing several movements composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, and sharing anecdotes from his time playing music at the Patton State Hospital and Skid Row, both in Los Angeles, California.
Gupta opened with speaking about isolation. He stated,
“We are overcome in this time by profound isolation, and mental health issues are facing us in a way that they never have in the past.”
He goes on to share his thoughts on isolation versus solitude, and how as an artist he is always looking for the opportunity to turn his solitude into possible human connections. He explained that current studies show that isolation is as damaging to the human body as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.
He spoke about marginalized populations and how they are often more vulnerable to mental health problems that lead them to shelters, clinics, or incarceration. He shared a story about a woman he met at a shelter where his organization was performing. She seemed distressed at first, but upon hearing a song in her native tongue of Swahili she began to sing along and her whole demeanor changed. He ended up speaking to her and she shared her story. The woman said to him, “I never thought I would have to come to a shelter to hear my music, to hear my language sang to me.” Gupta said, “In that moment I saw that individuals we meet in shelters, in clinics, even in county jails and prisons, are more than the worst thing that’s happened to them, and people find a sense of belonging in transcendence. They find a deep soulful medicine in connecting to their story, their lineage, and their history, in the context of a life where they are trying to move forward from their pain.” He added, “They are people who hurt, people who create, and people who cultivate their own sense of belonging.”
Gupta emphasized the great necessity of the arts during these unprecedented times. He said,
“I believe that we need the arts more than ever, not only as a public health intervention and a mental health intervention, but an intervention for our own healing.”
He also said that all of us are creative people who can take some time to journal, pick up an instrument, or sing as loudly as we want to. Gupta closed with a powerful statement: “Perhaps we must start by seeing and hearing ourselves, by seeing and hearing our own pain and our joy, before we can see, hear, and truly witness what other people need. In that way, we belong to each other by belonging to ourselves. We belong to a common universe.”
Here are more powerful quotes from his session:
- “My organization, Street Symphony, even before and through COVID, finds that when we engage people from their humanity, they are no longer defined as problems. They are no longer a case to be solved.”
- “When we started Street Symphony, we started it as a charity. It was a way to bring great joy and music to people who could never afford to sit in a great concert hall. But what we never expected was our own healing.”
- “In a sense, making music on Skid Row has been a gift to the musicians of Street Symphony. We have encountered a community that defines itself by resilience, but it also defines itself through a connection to art and humanity.”
- “We ostracize and criminalize the most vulnerable people in our society. We call people fragile and then we push them to the margin.”
- “I am now going to play for you another movement of Bach’s and what you’ll notice is that there are two constant voices. Sometimes they blossom into four voices, but essentially I am accompanying myself, and this to me is a metaphor of the heartbeat. We’re always accompanying ourselves with the rhythm of our heartbeat, the ongoing pulse of our humanity, which connects us to each other at all times. It's connecting us right now. I invite you to take a breath, close your eyes, and see if you can listen to the pulse of your own internal drumbeat that is always there for you.”
Get to know Vijay Gupta more by reading his interview with us prior to his session at UNITE!
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