Getting to Know Tunefoolery

Tunefoolery is a true gem of an organization located in Boston, Massachusetts. Musicians have reaped its benefits of trusted guidance and support as well as camaraderie and community since the doors opened over 25 years ago. It has given musicians a place to come and be among other musicians who are recovering from mental health issues that have affected their lives and sometimes even their creativity. It’s a place where they can find solace and joy in telling their tales to those who have been or are still in similar situations.

You can find out more about Tunefoolery on their website.

A concert on November 20, 2022, at the United Parish in Brookline, MA with the purposeful period band, Eudamonia and the bass clarinet ensemble, Improbable Beasts, will benefit Tunefoolery and its many outreach programs.  Find out how to buy a ticket and learn more about this show here. The show celebrates St. Cecilia’s Day — how apprpriate since St. Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians.

Tell us about the genesis of Tunefoolery. Tell us about its beginnings and how it’s grown over the years.

Tunefoolery was created at a mental health center in Cambridge, MA where Tunefoolery’s co-founders Theresa Thompson, musician and mental health counselor, worked, and Mark Irwin was a member. The idea was to support people in mental health recovery who had musical talents but didn’t really know what to do with it. Maybe they didn’t have access to an instrument, maybe they needed a purpose with their playing, etc. By creating a structure and opportunities for live gigs (and get paid for performing!), along with a supportive community, Tunefoolery became an organization starting with four musicians who played 15 gigs in their first year. Before the pandemic we did over 300 gigs a year and we have over 60 musicians now.

The video that is featured on your website is very inspiring since it shows the power of community as well as the power of music.

Thank you, it’s nice to hear!

You can watch the video here.

Do many of your musicians come from a professional music background?

Depends on how you define it. None of our musicians were making a living from playing music when they joined Tunefoolery (well, how many musicians do…?), but several of them, especially if they had a classical music background, attended music schools, conservatories, etc. If they had not been affected by a serious mental illness, they probably could have been candidates for a professional music career. Most of our non-classical musicians (some do both classical and non-classical music) are folk/singer-songwriters and some of them were active doing gigs, etc., when joining us, but several people did not do anything with their music prior to joining.

Are there as many people who have found solace through their music as a form of recovery in their mental health challenges and were not necessarily part of a music community before their association with Tunefoolery?

I would say almost all our 60 musicians have used music and music making as part of their recovery. Being a musician, especially if you don’t play in a band/group/ensemble can be a very solitary and competitive existence, so joining our community has also provided solace. Obviously, all of us love music; it has formed our lives and we all find music to be a source of joy, comfort, and solace. For most of our musicians, I don’t think joining Tunefoolery changed their personal relationship to listening to or playing music but being part of a community where everybody can be open about their mental journey, about feeling alienated and vulnerable at different times is very valuable. Since we are providing gigs, music education, and support, it also helps people to engage in their music in ways they couldn’t do without being in Tunefoolery.

 Your musicians take the time to go out and play music at hospitals, nursing homes, and conferences. This type of outreach is so important and must be so touching for all involved. Do you know of any occasions where either the musician or someone in the audience had a profound or inspiring experience?

I have witnessed so many of our concerts where audience members have been very energized and expressed how that day was one of the best things happened to them for a long time. I think audience members in mental health recovery really like that our musicians are “one of them”, peers, who also have been dealing with psychiatric hospitalizations, homelessness, etc. What really stands out to me is when we do our Rolling Coffee Houses, bringing an Open Mic to a shelter or other mental health venue, and to see an audience member go up and sing/play for other people in the program and everybody is blown away since they had no idea that another client/shelter guest had such musical talents. 

How did the COVID pandemic affect your musicians as well your (assumed) inability to play gigs in person. Did you use the internet for all types of experiences?

Most people dealing with a severe and long-term mantal illness are also dealing with isolation, anxiety, and depression. So, when the pandemic hit, we knew that our musicians would suffer tremendously, which motivated us to create a lot of music education and gig opportunities online. We also set up online support groups, dance parties, etc. and found lots of creative ways to connect every day of the week. This meant that more musicians could participate, especially those who lived far from our office in Boston’s South End.  2 1/2 years later, we’re figuring how to create a hybrid model of doing things online and in person, since playing music together, which is such a magical way to connect, has to be in-person.

I’m guessing that the musicians play a variety of types of music–ranging from classical to jazz to folk or singer-songwriter. Has Tunefoolery made any matches made in heaven in terms of musicians meeting, learning from each other, and discovering new ways to create different kinds of music to nourish and feed their souls.

I would argue that all music making can be, and most often is, nourishing and feeding our souls, especially if we’re playing with others. What Tunefoolery has supported is to get people to play more together, to take risks, to get outside the comfort zone. Again, dealing with a major mental illness limits many people to join communities since they are expecting to be judged, to be ostracized. Also, many of our musicians have started writing music after joining or picked up an additional instrument. We also have a wonderful Community Music Director, Tony Leva, who has led workshops for many years where he is emphasizing the benefit of having fun while expanding our musical landscapes. 

If someone is interested in getting involved or thinks that they could benefit from your services, what is involved?

It’s pretty simple, contact us and we’ll talk. If it’s a good match, you can join.

Has Tunefoolery inspired other communities to start similar organizations?

Not that I know of, but we are part of a mental health recovery movement that emphasize the talents and opportunities for people with severe mental health issues. Historically, this is a group of people who were not trusted to make decisions about their own lives and after directing Tunefoolery for 22 years, I have to say that I have never seen as much kindness, compassion, and forgiveness in any other community I’ve been part of. The stigma related to mental illness has decreased a lot in the last 10 years, but it remains, especially for people with schizophrenia and psychosis, so it’s important for us and the rest of the movement to inspire and empower other people in mental health recovery.