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Orange County Music and Dance launches program for vets

Rick Roche, Charles Julian Fearing and Barbara Stransky at a Rock for Vets event.
Rick Roche, Charles Julian Fearing and Barbara Stransky at a Rock for Vets event.
(Courtesy of Melissa Keyes)

Orange County Music and Dance is launching a new program for veterans in April.

Operation Gig is designed to help active duty military or veterans cope with stress resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

The free eight-week program features three options: classes for beginners, jam sessions for those who want to improve their skills and rehearsals in small ensembles for experienced players who want to perform in front of an audience.

The program supplies veterans with everything they need — instructions, lessons, coaches and instruments. All classes and rehearsals are planned to take place in-person and outdoors at Orange County Great Park in Irvine. At the end of the program, participants will get a chance to perform in several concerts around the park.

Veterans’ spouses, family members and children 16 years or older are also encouraged to participate.

Operation Gig is the first of its kind for OCMD.

The nonprofit typically offers music and dance classes to children ages 5 to 18. When the pandemic hit, OCMD’s student participation of about 470 children was cut in half because music teachers weren’t able to get in touch with some students remotely. Leadership at the nonprofit started to brainstorm how they could use their resources.

Doug Freeman pictured with Orange County Music and Dance students.
Doug Freeman pictured with Orange County Music and Dance students.
(Courtesy of Orange County Music and Dance)

“I’m a 10-year Air Force veteran and my COO is a 10-year Marine veteran,” said Doug Freeman, executive chairman and chief executive officer of OCMD. “We knew that vets were going to be one of the hardest hit groups, particularly those in the most recent deployments. Those veterans really need to be around other veterans who have gone through similar experiences. It’s a crucial part of their return to normalcy.”

Rock for Vets, a Long Beach nonprofit which has been in operation since 2010, will train the program’s coaches and help identify participants.

Frank Mcllquham, Rock For Vets cofounder, said there’s a specific way to deal with veterans.

“It’s very hard to build trust with the vets. It’s all about treating veterans with respect and consistency. Music helps veterans open up,” Mcllquham said.

The musical will be performed outdoors this weekend at the Rose Center Theater in Westminster.

Although Rock for Vets has lost much of its funding for performances, the group’s online programming continues. It has offered virtual gatherings that have drawn veterans from out of state during the pandemic.

Jimmy Perez, a 12-year vet who lives in Rancho Santa Margarita, already signed up for the program. For Perez, music has been a therapeutic tool for his mental health.

In addition to adjusting to life outside military service, Perez and his partner lost their child. He describes the time period as a dark place full of depression and thoughts of suicide. In the waiting room on one of his therapy visits, he noticed how an automated baby grand piano playing classical music eased his mood. He bought himself a keyboard and taught himself how to play.

He started playing piano for veterans and families coming in and out of the veterans’ volunteer office in Long Beach.

“I didn’t realize what I was doing,” Perez said. “I wasn’t even thinking about ‘healing.’ For me, it was more like an opportunity to play the piano so I can feel good.”

He volunteered for five years before being hired as an assistant at the office and still uses music as a way to process his emotions.

Perez is looking forward to performing with other musicians and for a formal audience for the first time through the Operation Gig program.

Freeman hopes that at least 100 veterans will sign up online and residents in the surrounding the park area will come out to listen to the outdoor performances in the spring.

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