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San Francisco Opera Singer Brings Healing Music Therapy To Veterans Battling PTSD

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – A San Francisco man who's taught opera and directed opera centers around the world is bringing his skills to serve those who have served our country.

"How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?" sings Rick Harrell, accompanying himself on his guitar.

Music can bring freedom and healing. Rick Harrell knows it firsthand. The opera singer and stage director was looking for a change from teaching conservatory students when the thought of serving military veterans struck a chord in 2013.

Harrell said he would see uniformed soldiers at the airport departing for the Persian Gulf, and think, "They were the same age as my students in the conservatory ... How can I serve them?"

"So I started Heroes' Voices, essentially, to let me do music therapy with veterans," Harrell recalled.


His San Francisco-based nonprofit gives free guitar, singing, and poetry workshops for veterans battling challenges like post traumatic stress disorder.

Harrell explained the therapeutic impact on the brain.

"They find it's wonderful for depression, it's helpful for anxiety," he said.

A few dozen veterans attend Heroes' Voices weekly guitar classes. They started on-site, first at the VA Menlo Park, then in San Francisco, and county jails, to name a few locations. A pandemic switch to virtual classes now reaches veterans nationwide.

Music instructor Larry Chung helped Harrell start and teach the guitar sessions.

"It's a way they can express their stories, their personalities, their being," Chung said.

Vietnam War vet Jesse Grenier has lived with PTSD for more than 50 years.

"The emotion of music is not analytical to me – it's from my heart, my soul," Grenier explained.

He now helps give away guitars to help other veterans.

LEARN MORE: Jefferson Awards for Public Service

For Iraqi War veteran Robert Kaplan, writing songs supports his substance abuse recovery.

And Kaplan says Harrell sets the perfect tone.

"He just extends his warmth to people. I've always felt very safe around him, felt welcome around him," said Kaplan.

Participants pick their own guitar, for free.

Harrell said more than 200 of them - new or refurbished - are donated by Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto.

He can recite a string of stories about how Heroes' Voices changes lives.

For example, he said, there was a veteran in a psychiatric ICU who had not gotten out of bed for five days who was convinced he would die that day. And then Rick came and shared his favorite tunes.

"That day he got out of bed to make music," Harrell said. "If you can touch lives like that, then, 'Why not?'"

So for touching military veterans' lives with the gift of music, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Rick Harrell.

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