Rock to Recovery

Wes Geer

Last fall, guitarist and former Korn sideman, Wes Geer introduced his brainchild, Rock to Recovery, to members of the press and Nashville-area drug and alcohol treatment professionals in an event held at the Nashville offices of Foundations Recovery Network. As the group listened, Geer and Rock to Recovery’s Nashville Program Administrator, Phil Bogard, explained that everyone present — regardless of whether or not they’d ever picked up an instrument or attempted to sing — were going to write, perform, and record a song. Despite the skepticism present in the audience, by the end of the 45-minute session, the song was written and the group was singing along to the accompaniment of a band picked at random from the audience.

Along with the basic instructions for the inexperienced musicians on how to play, Geer took on the mantle of motivator and cheerleader for the group at large. While pushing a group of people far outside their comfort zone is no easy task, according the Geer, the tools to do so are pretty basic.

“[It takes] love and support, gentle nudges, and TONS of positive reinforcement, I mean TONS! We cheer for people as they do the unthinkable, and it lights them up.”

While this scene might invoke memories of feel-good campfire singalongs, its purpose is directed at one of the most serious and challenging medical problems — the treatment of addiction.

Treating addiction is problematic. Consider this understatement central to the need for fresh ideas and approaches; there is no one-size-fits-all model with guaranteed outcomes. The very nature of addiction presents challenges unlike any other medical crisis. The American Medical Association classifies addiction as a disease, but this particular disease affects the sufferer emotionally, mentally, and spiritually — as well as physically. Throw a dysfunctional family into the mix along with the economic impacts that come with chronic illness, and the landscape becomes fraught with pitfalls and seemingly insurmountable obstacles for an addict entering treatment.

Wes Geer was well aware of those challenges when he launched Rock to Recovery in 2012. Having been through treatment himself years earlier, he’d experienced firsthand the feelings of disconnect, the resistance to being vulnerable and open, and the fear of the unknown. “The Korn gig was coming to an end,” Geer says. “I wanted to think of a way to leave a greater legacy than just being another guitar player. [I wanted to do] something that could help people — hopefully — long after I had left the planet. I was [about to be] an out-of-work, sober musician. Easy to get into self-pity — instead I got deeper into prayer and meditation, asking, ‘What can I do to HELP people and make a living?’ and the idea came to me, to try and grow and evolve how music was used to treat people.”

Geer remembered an experience during his time in treatment when he was asked to play the guitar; a change came over everyone, and they all seemed to forget the weight of the world they’d been carrying. Geer wanted to take music a step further by having everyone play an instrument (singing came later, as his approach became more refined), regardless of whether or not they’d ever played before, and that core idea provided the foundation for Rock to Recovery. As the program evolved, Rock to Recovery became a guided experiential session lasting an average of 90 minutes in which a group — initially composed of people in treatment for addiction — composes, plays, and records a song from start to finish.

“Without giving away our personal brand of magic, we start by connecting with the people in the session on a level we can meet at, based in our similar plight, desperation to find hope, and change,” Geer says. “We create a topic for discussion, and all give feedback on the topic. Those usually become our lyrics. Then we pick a style, a groove, a guitar riff, a bassline, something to get us going, and we put on layers of music, and melody on top, until everyone is playing. We create a vocal hook, and we get the entire band to sing together, through some magic I used to call the ‘patented Wes Geer Kumbaya technique!’”

While it might sound like fun and games, there’s hard science behind the music. Through the use of brain-scan imagery, neuroscientists can actually see the effect music has on brain, and the findings are fascinating: for the listener, one hemisphere lights up; for the player, both hemispheres light up. What’s more, the affected areas correspond to those affected by drug use — the pleasure centers.

When people are in treatment for PTSD, behavioral disorders, mental health issues, and addiction, Geer says, “There is a common thread; any combo, or all of these things — darkness, hopelessness, apathy, despair. We can talk all day to people and give them classes, lectures, and information overload, and try to teach recovery — which is of paramount importance. But arguably, most of what people hear when bombarded with words in a treatment program gets forgotten.

“What Rock to Recovery does is show them they can do the unthinkable: They can challenge themselves, work through stress, fear, pressure, and create magic,” he continues. “The unequaled, transformative properties of playing music help people drill down past the layers of hurt, damage, and trauma to tap into their Source: that playful, happy, joyous, and free inner child that is still there. It demonstrates that joy still exists, and it doesn’t require a drug, or something outside the individual, but rather it’s always there, waiting, inside of each person.”

While Geer’s excitement and enthusiasm for his brainchild is palpable, it was a difficult sell at first. “Much like the problem I was trying to solve, everyone loved the idea of music in treatment and agreed music is magic, but people seemed afraid to give my, dare I say, revolutionary ideas to get EVERYONE singing and playing, ‘musical’ or not, a chance,” he recalls.

“Since I was out of work and literally doing five jobs, trying different endeavors to keep the lights on, I was desperate to generate any revenue,” he continues. “While working odd jobs, I pitched the concept to dozens of people and programs, over six months, until finally I had a taker.”

That “taker” was Paul Moen at Balboa Horizons in Orange County, California — one of the Golden State’s most respected addiction treatment centers. Geer pitched his ideas in October 2012, founded the 501(c)3 non-profit Rock to Recovery on Dec. 12, 2012, and the first sessions at Balboa Horizons began the following May. The results were almost immediate.

“As soon as I had it working, … the results were incredible!” Geer says. “Physical, emotional and, dare I say, spiritual transformations — I knew I wanted to take it far and wide.” Since that start in 2012, Rock for Recovery has expanded to other addiction treatment facilities as well as receiving an official contract from the Department of Defense for the program’s work with injured veterans suffering from both addiction and PTSD.

Establishing a presence in Nashville seemed like a logical next step. “Erica Krusen from MusiCares said, ‘Hey you should talk to Phil [Bogard]. He’s pretty rad.’ So, we had long wanted to get into Music City and just needed the right, magic human to do it with. In one phone call I knew Phil was our guy. His talent, heart and passion are very special.

“See most of us had record deals and toured,” Geer continues. “The magic of a sacred form of expression gets mostly lost, sadly. But for Phil and all of us that share this common mission, we get to see music take on a new, next-level manifestation. Phil has been magical in his own right and just the perfect guy to develop a new marketplace for our vision.”

Phil Bogard

“I was touring with a major label act, playing in arenas, and scraping by,” Phil Bogard says. “I knew something was missing in my soul, and I didn’t know what that something was until I found this.”
The “this” Bogard refers to is his position as the Nashville Program Director for Rock to Recovery. It’s a role that has allowed him to fill his spirit through being of service to those in need, and one that he didn’t even know existed when he began looking for something “outside of the touring existence.”

It was during a phone call with Erica Krusen, Senior Director of Health and Human Services for MusiCares, that serendipity stepped in. Bogard had heard of a facilitated group therapy founded by guitarist Wes Geer called Rock to Recovery and asked Krusen if she had heard of it. She was in fact on Rock to Recovery’s Board of Directors, and before the conversation ended, emailed Wes Geer to introduce the two musicians.
A lengthy phone conversation between Bogard and Geer followed, and “Within 15 minutes I was getting texts from an administrator asking for a picture of my driver’s license so they could book me a plane ticket for L.A.,” Bogard says.

Upon his arrival, Bogard was fast tracked through the training process, which included 4-5 sessions per day with three different Program Administrators in Southern California. By the end of the week, he was given his first session to lead.

Constance Scharff, Ph.D., the Science and Research Chair for Rock to Recovery, provides insight for the reason things moved so quickly with Bogard: “When we saw the opportunity to expand to Tennessee we jumped, because we recognized the need,” Scharff says. “According to the Tennessee Department of Health, in 2017, 1776 Tennesseans died from overdoses. Three quarters of these overdoses were associated with opioids. This is the highest number since reporting began. For 2018, unless Tennessee somehow bucks the national trend, that number will likely increase. Once we had Phil identified as someone able to facilitate the program, providing services in Nashville became a top priority.”

Although Bogard has only been on the job since July 2018, he’s already spent a significant amount of time leading sessions, developing new clients for the program, and researching other ways the Rock to Recovery model can be of service. One of his ideas is setting up quarterly events for first responders who are dealing with the opioid crisis day-in, day-out.

“Our goal is not only to provide support to those in treatment from addiction, but to provide mental health services to those who need them most — be that in domestic violence shelters, juvenile justice facilities, veterans’ hospitals, in workshops in the workplace or facilities that provide psychological services,” explains Scharff. “Ultimately, we’d like to provide services across the state, provided that we are granted funding for our nonprofit outreach and [more] great facilitators like Phil.”

While Bogard’s duties extend beyond the music sessions, securing participation from skeptical and often fearful session participants remains his central and most challenging duty.

“When I walk in the door and they are told basically what this is, more than half are like, ‘Yeah, probably not doing that,’ or ‘I’m good. I’ll just watch,’” he says. “My goal is to get them on the other side of that hump, and my success rate is pretty high. I measure success by having a song at the end; a song that we have all collectively built together, written, and recorded.”

But Bogard’s greatest satisfaction in his work can’t be captured on digital musical files, it’s the change he sees in the program’s participants and the effect it has on their lives and in their hope for the future.

“One of the big things I do is point out how many people feel better than they did when I walked in the room,” Bogard says. “It seems like without fail, the person who had a scowl [and] absolutely no intention at all of participating ends up being the star of that song.”

Rock to Recovery: IN ACTION

Phil Bogard, the Nashville Program Director for Rock to Recovery, brings devotion and passion to his work. While awaiting tonight’s group at Buffalo Valley’s after-care facility on Music Row, he’s sharing a listen to some of the latest Rock to Recovery sides on his iPhone. Each song is the result of one 90-minute session by participants who are, one and all, in the infancy of recovery from drug and/or alcohol addiction. “My favorite verse!” he exclaims one minute, followed by, “Check out this piano part!” the next.

The individuals due for this evening’s session are fresh out of detox. Most of them were there to kick an opioid addiction; all of them arrive anxious and unsettled. Phil wastes no time taking charge of the room. He introduces himself and provides a brief history of his careers as a musician and an addict — essential for establishing credibility with the group. He then launches into the nitty gritty.

“We are going to form a band, right now,” he says. “You’re going to play instruments and sing. We’re going to creatively — as a team — build, write, and record a song in its entirety. The reason we are going to do this, why we are doing this, is everybody knows the therapeutic value of music. I can point at every single person, and you can tell me what particular song got you through what particular time in your life. But when you’re listening to music you fire off only one half of your brain; when you actively participate in music it fires off both halves of your brain. It releases oxytocin; it increases serotonin. We literally get high from playing music, and, clearly, we all like to get high. Otherwise we wouldn’t be in this room together.”

That last bit receives the sought-after laugh and puts everyone a bit more at ease. It’s the first connection, and connecting with this newly sober bunch facilitates the goal: participation. Phil rapidly assigns everyone an instrument. Attention spans are short, so time is of the essence.

Tyler takes on lyrics. Bill covers the bass line. “Derek, you’re rad!” shouts Phil in support as Derek locks down the keyboard melody. As everyone starts getting the groove, Phil hops in with guitar riffs to drive things on. Before five minutes have elapsed, the outline of song has developed — with non-musicians.

The crew that began fidgety and distracted is now engaged in their part. And they are … smiling.
Percussion is added along with another guitar, while Tyler continues work on the lyrics. The groove deepens as latecomers arrive (who are promptly handed a tambourine or an egg shaker). Meanwhile, Alex and Phil get the chorus melody moving along.

But this is just the surface. What’s really happening is a shift in consciousness: the animation of brain waves, the drug-free high. Phil repeats the ‘music makes you high’ explanation to latecomer and newly christened tambourine-player Marcus.

“Four, three, two, one!” The groove fires up with Tyler and Phil hopping in, giving voice to Tyler’s just-composed lyrics.

“Four, three, two, one!” A surprisingly smooth shift into the chorus:

Separate the darkness
Moving towards the light
Walkin’ thru our weakness
Moving toward the light

Within 45 minutes, take one is in the can, and everyone is invested.