While education theorists like to talk about the benefits of making music on an individual’s mental and even physical well being, music instructor, and area performer Jim Gaven is putting ideas into actions with his monthly “Music Night at Allies.”
Allies is a Hamilton-based nonprofit founded in 1999 to provide housing, healthcare, meaningful employment, and recreational opportunities to people with special needs. The music gatherings are held in the middle of the month — with the next set for Monday, October 13, and after that on Wednesday, November 10, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The participants’ age range is early 20s to late 50s.
“We’re providing (the sessions) for free. We have had as many as 50 people. It sometimes even filters out into the hallway area. It just happens to be a cool event with people in wheel chairs and with cerebral palsy. I really encourage everyone to leap in. Kind of like a group collaborative effort,” says Hamilton native and resident Gaven.
The 30-year-old coordinator — whose full-time position provides one-on-one and group music projects for Allies clients in the central New Jersey region — adds that one of the benefits for the “guys” (that includes females) is that “singing improves their confidence. If they’re an introvert it brings them out of the shell. It builds their confidence.”
He says that to break down initial inhibitions, “I tell them that it’s okay to make a mistake, I tell them I screw up all the time. If you mess up a word, it doesn’t matter. It’s getting them out of the mindset of ‘I’m afraid to do it because I’m afraid I’m going to mess up.’” The benefit, he says, is that it “helps them not only with music, but getting them in front of a microphone and wailing out a song can help them become more assertive — especially the ones who are really shy or don’t talk at all.”
The 2002 graduate of Steinert High School says his involvement with fostering individual growth through music was unplanned when he went to Seton Hall. “I was a business management major. I played on the varsity soccer team. (Academics and sports) really helped me with time management. Business was in my head, and I thought it would have been nice to start my own business. That’s why I went to business school and learned the ins-and-outs.”
But first there were life lessons. “I learned that I hated accounting. But a transition had started before I went to college. All I did was sports and didn’t start music until I was 16 and broke my ankle. My friend Tom was a musician, and that was probably the pivotal point in my life. Music started to take over. Then I started learning the business, and I thought that I could start my own music business.”
The self-trained guitarist joined Tom in a band and began to think “I could do this singer-songwriter thing and turn into an entity. Maybe I can make my solo project a business. The music I write has a singer-songwriter pop rock kind of feel. I’ve written over 300 (songs), but not all of them are going to see the light of day. Maybe 80 have seen the light of day to buy or stream. I play four or five times a month in different venues,” he says, noting that over the next few months he will be playing his Martin acoustic guitar at Blend Bar & Bistro in Hamilton, Hopewell Valley Vineyards, and the Laurita Winery in New Egypt.
Looking back Gaven says, “Music has given me something that sports haven’t: the freedom to be creative. It really comes down to creating something out of nothing. I like that feeling of putting a puzzle together. Writing a song is like putting a puzzle together. And when it comes together, it’s great. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing sports, but it doesn’t give me the same freedom that the arts do.”
The arts also provided a passage from one phase of life to another.
After graduation Gaven moved back home with his parents — his father is a project manager at the environmental consulting firm AMEC in Hamilton, his mother, a dental office receptionist, also in Hamilton. He then commuted to daily to New York City to work at the Harry Fox Agency, a mechanical licensing, collections, and distribution agency for U.S. music publishers.
“I thought it would lead me to someplace musically. I was working in New York and meeting people. But it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I was behind a computer all day. I would come home every day and feel like I was not making a difference. I didn’t feel a connection to music. I was crunching numbers and indirectly paying people for the CDs they sold. I started sending my resume out and Googling ‘How to make a difference with a music job’ and wanted to see if I could get into something, doing something that mattered.”
Things changed when he started volunteering at Saint Vincent de Paul’s Visitation Home in Yardville. “All the individuals there had some disability. Some had Down syndrome. Others had other things going on. And I fell in love working with these guys. Every Sunday I would go and spend an hour, play some songs I wrote, some covers. I was learning and wanted to make a difference. That experience made me want to be in this field and do something with music. So I said, ‘I got to figure out how to do this. Get into a place like this and bring music to it.’ “
Gaven enlisted others to help him move towards his goal. That included his mother, who handed out resumes at the dental office and placed one in the hands of Gary Zarrilli, a coordinator at Project Freedom (an organization that assists individuals with disabilities to live independently).
“My mother saw his profile in the (company) computer and saw that he was working at a nonprofit. She gave a resume to him. He said, ‘I don’t have anything but I know someone who may’ and he handed it to Steve Cook, the executive director at ARC” — an advocacy and support organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “(Cook) was drawn to the fact that I had a business degree, was working in music, and volunteering. He took a chance with me and brought me on.”
Gaven says it was a learning experience. “During my first year at the ARC, I learned a lot more about life: How to listen to people, how to work on peoples’ strengths. I started finding what (individuals in his music groups) liked and listening to artists that they liked. So I thought this is how I am going to create my program. I took notes and created this good thing at ARC. In that first year I learned a lot, probably more than in my four years of college.”
His learning has been fine-tuned by his wife, Katie, an occupational therapist in Burlington Township. “I met her through a mutual friend in New Hope. We dated for six months and I knew (she was the one).”
Gaven stayed at ARC for three-and-a-half years. “ARC gave me a great chance to make a difference in music. They took a chance with me. I would not be at Allies if they didn’t take a chance and believe in me.” He says the transition to Allies was linked to having more opportunities to involve more clients. “It’s being part of the world. I want to give people a more and a better quality of life.”
Gaven says that the overall community can help in a variety of ways. First is through the donation of instruments. “Simple things — tambourines, full drum set, a couple of extra acoustic guitars — would help, maybe one or two microphones, mic stands, and a small speaker and (public address) system, maybe two channels.”
He would also appreciate help from those who really know the benefit of music, beyond the theorists. “It would be great if any musicians want to come and turn into a jam session. Something interesting can happen.”
Music Night at Allies, Allies Incorporated, 1262 Whitehorse-Hamilton Square Road, Trenton. Monday, October 13, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Free. For more info on Allies, call 609-689-0136 or visit www.alliesnj.org.
Jim Gaven, Blend Bar & Bistro, 911 Route 33, Hamilton. Friday, November 14, 8 to 11 p.m.
Hopewell Valley Vineyards, 46 Yard Road, Pennington, Friday, November 21, 6 to 9 p.m.
Laurita Winery, 85 Archertown Road, New Egypt. Saturday December 6.
For more information and to hear music, go to www.facebook.com/jimgavenmusic or www.wix.com/jimgaven/music.