Music that Heals

When tragedy strikes, volunteers grab their instruments and show up for the community

Written by Cara Suplee

Amid clouds of tear gas, police barricades and impermeable crowds of protesters, an orchestra plays. A symphony of violins, violas, cello and bass resist the trauma beginning to blister in the aftermath of the Jacob Blake shooting. 

This is what Dayvin Hallmon calls a “peacekeeping mission.” His orchestra, The Black String Triage Ensemble, travels alongside other musicians to places like Kenosha to soothe tensions surrounding incidents of racial injustice and violence. Although this effort is relatively new, Hallmon’s vocation as a musician is not. 

Since the age of 9, Hallmon played the piano at church, often in the face of grief. This experience showed him that music has the capacity to heal in a way that nothing or no one else can. This understanding became the catalyst for The Black String Triage Ensemble, the all-Black and Latinx orchestra Hallmon founded to play at crime scenes. The purpose of the unusual venue is to interrupt the cycle of trauma before it has a chance to form. 

“I’m accustomed to walking people through all phases of their lives — weddings, funerals, baptisms,” Hallmon says. “In a lot of ways, this is simply an extension of that work.”

The Black String Triage Ensemble has 15 volunteers who practice together weekly, socially distanced in public parks more recently, and reserve certain days to be “on call.” This means that musicians wait for Hallmon’s signal, instruments packed at their doors. On these days, Hallmon sits at his desk and monitors Milwaukee 911 call logs, looking for situations that could involve the most turmoil, pain and damage to the neighborhood. Most of the time, these are scenes of fatal gun violence. 

“With shootings, it just seemed like there had to be something that occurred in the space between the time when the event occurs and just when it sinks in,” Hallmon says. 

The trauma that’s experienced in predominantly minority neighborhoods in Milwaukee is only a microcosm of what happens across the United States. According to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan, independent organization that advocates for a fair criminal justice system, homicide rates increased substantially this past summer across 27 U.S. cities, including Milwaukee. With the chaos from the 2020 election wrapped in a pandemic and topped with a resurgence in the civil rights movement, these rates are unfortunately unsurprising. What is surprising, however, is the lack of focus on how to reflect, heal and repair in order to move forward from these moments. 

That’s where music comes in.

“In the absence of effective de-escalation, the first thing the music does is it activates the entire brain at once,” says Dale Taylor, a world-renowned music therapist based in Eau Claire. “If that music can be heard by every person there, then automatically and immediately, you have every person responding to the same stimulus, and depending on the quality of the music, it can be a very nice, beautiful stimulus.” 

This phenomenon that Taylor describes is exactly what Hallmon and his ensemble aim to do. In the aftermath of a crime, they play music at the scene to try to refocus people’s minds on something calmer than the situation around them.  

“That is when we should be there,” Hallmon says, “between the time of the event happening and the time that the investigation is over and everybody is gone, the anger, the unease, all of that, by that point in time has calcified because there has been no response to those emotions.”

Illustrated by Channing Smith

The Black String Triage Ensemble responds in the form of soulful, elegant notes from string instruments. Hallmon selects the pieces the group plays based on the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Each stage of grief is tied to a specific style of Black music. There is no need for lyrics: the tone matches that of the scene and the space to allow the community to channel its reaction through the outlet of music.  

All of the compositions are written by musicians of color, and some are dreamed up by Hallmon himself. One piece he wrote stems from Psalm 137, which is interpreted as being about prisoners who are forced to entertain their captors. Hallmon uses this as a parallel to the anger of how Black people in the U.S. feel as though they are refugees, trapped and ordered to entertain their oppressors. With the group being entirely Black and Latinx, the members often have profound levels of connection to the music they play and the crime scenes where they perform.

“They’re showing their compassion and showing their, not only protest or disgust with the situation, but their emotion and sadness,” says Isaiah Spencer, a Chicago-based jazz and blues drummer and an active figure in the minority music scene. “This is a living testament to what this music is, and what art is and why it’s needed.” 

Spencer spoke to his own experience with the curative properties of music and through this, knew undoubtedly of the sincere empathy and relief that The Black String Triage Ensemble has to offer. 

The Black String Triage Ensemble deviates from the five stages of grief by adding a fundamental step: faith. In their eyes, there must be one step beyond simple acceptance. There must be hope. 

“If we do not believe things will be better, we as humans cease to move forward,” their mission states. 

This addition fills a space that many therapists have attempted to articulate themselves. Brenna Liebold, a music therapist based in Milwaukee, appreciates the ensemble’s addition of the sixth stage of faith. Liebold works with mainly geriatric patients, some of whom are just now learning to connect with trauma-related emotions that they have held onto for 30 to 40 years. This experience gives her an even better lens on how important music therapy is for grief and how powerful it can be in the moments when post-traumatic stress disorder is forming in real-time. 

“When you’re going through the stages of grief, there’s a lot of chaos, in your thoughts and in your feelings and by the time you work through those stages of grief, hopefully, you’ve reached a balance where you accept the emotions, you understand what they are and you begin to understand what you need to do to get to the place you desire to be,” Liebold says. “That balance can happen with music.”

According to Liebold, music can activate the entire brain unlike anything else and get people’s minds thinking in unison. When The Black String Triage Ensemble plays, it brings everyone’s minds toward the music, as opposed to all of the predisposed emotions and prejudices that they bring to a crime scene.

There is also poetry in the ensemble’s choice of string instruments, which can produce notes that mimic tones of the human voice and embody a unique form of empathy. 

“People who are on the verge of tears, who might be trying to be real strong, they might sense that those tears are building up in the music instead of in themselves,” Liebold says. “So they’re kind of letting go in a different way, without directly doing it. They can sense that the music is doing it for them.”

This notion is the foundation of music therapy and fuels The Black String Triage Ensemble to continue lending its sound to cushion the grief others feel. Especially in the case of recent incidents of police brutality and subsequent protests, Hallmon has made it his mission to continue his art, even if it puts him and his orchestra in dangerous situations.

“I think we all also realize by coming together and playing, it’s the best way for us not to be dragged down into hopelessness and despair and anger,” Hallmon says.

What Hallmon and his ensemble undertake has everything and nothing to do with music. It’s far more complex and threaded with empathy for the human condition. The orchestra uses music as its avenue for compassion. Hallmon feels this is at the heart of what art is about.  

“I know there are 30,000 different ways we can use art,” Hallmon says, “but if we’re not using it to bring people together, to have a different sense of who they are and who they can be, particularly in this moment, then I wonder what we’re doing.”