What does healing sound like? For the men and women in Bill Protzmann’s music-appreciation class at the Friend to Friend center in North Park, it sounds like the melancholy strains of “Taps.” And the roof-raising bounce of Katy Perry’s “Firework.” And when things really heat up, it sounds like the party-time instrumental “Tequila,” as played by a roomful of people honking away on kazoos.
For Protzmann — the volunteer music teacher who plays the tunes and hands out the kazoos — healing sounds like whatever music people need to make them feel less jumbled-up inside. And when he’s standing in front of his class, the impact is so big, he can feel it.
“You can see it in their eyes,” said Protzmann, who works for the TetraDym Inc. telemanagement company and has been teaching the weekly Friend to Friend class since 2010. “It could be joy. It could be tears. But there is a deep connection happening. Sometimes I get the chills, and sometimes I cry.”
Operated by Episcopal Community Services of San Diego, the Friend to Friend program helps mentally ill and homeless adults with everything from housing and social services to job training and support for independent living. And on Mondays, the Friend to Friend menu includes Bill Protzmann.
During his one-hour classes, the accomplished pianist and mental-health advocate talks about music and its power to help people help themselves. With the day’s play list cued up on his smartphone and his passion for the subject thrumming like reverb, Protzmann gets to the heart of the songs and their listeners.
Who likes disco? Who likes rap? How did Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ’n’ Roll” make them feel? What music puts them in a good mood? What music stresses them out? And for every question there is feedback from the crowd.
One man talks about the soothing use of Eastern music in Sting’s “Desert Rose.” Another student talks about the way “good yelling” songs lift him up. When Protzmann plays “Taps,” heads bow and the mood turns thoughtful. And when the kazoos come out, you can hear the liberating sound of emotional baggage hitting the floor.
This month, Protzmann’s musical outreach earned him the 2014 Inspiring Hope Artistic Expression award from the National Council for Behavioral Health, along with a $10,000 grant that he will be passing along to Friend to Friend. Although he was pretty priceless already.
“It can be really difficult to get some members involved socially, and this is a real help for them,” said Stephen Faille, a Friend to Friend vocational rehabilitation specialist. “I have heard people say that time just goes by in that class, and I think it’s because they can fully participate without judgment. There is no way to be wrong in this class. It lets people be themselves and accept themselves, and that’s a good feeling.”
For the Los Angeles-born Protzmann, playing the piano was always about more than hitting the right notes. Even as a kid, it was about the way it made his piano teacher laugh and cry at the same time. It was a coping mechanism for feelings he didn’t understand and an outlet that kept him out of hot water at home.
“I was very depressed as a kid, and the only way I could express that was on the piano. If I didn’t, I would act out. Until I went to therapy in my 30s, I didn’t know that’s what was going on,” said Protzmann, 53, who moved to San Diego with his family in 1978 and graduated from Fallbrook High School. “I still have issues, but that’s not the point. I have taken my own experiences of healing and put them into something that is teachable and understandable.”
His teachable musical journey began in the 1990s, when he combined his piano prowess and his emotional awareness into a one-man show called, “Connected.” Protzmann would play everything from nostalgic pop tunes to comforting classical numbers, and he would talk about how the songs made him feel while encouraging his audiences to think about how the songs made them feel. A comforting good time was usually had by all.
In 2007, he began performing a new version of “Connected” that emphasized the use of music as a self-healing tool. He did a lot of work with veterans groups, including Guitars for Vets, which provides guitars and music lessons to military men and women dealing with post-traumatic stress issues.
The Friend to Friend gig started in 2010, and what looked like a tough crowd became a support group that worked for teacher and students alike. For the man with the musical lesson plan, the benefits just keep on coming.
“Every single time, it’s a healing thing,” said Protzmann, who likes to do a little therapeutic drumming with his wife, Rebecca, and their five daughters. “I love watching people light up around the music. It’s been a wonderful, joyous ride.”
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