Reflections on Service: Veterans Put Experiences to Music

Seattle Symphony Concertmaster Noah Geller (left) and Chris, a veteran from Compass Housing Alliance, (right) talking during a rehearsal at Benaroya Hall. (Photo: James Holt)

Veterans at Compass Housing Alliance composed a new work for the Seattle Symphony. The music reflects their experiences in the service and their struggles returning to civilian life.

By Andrew Stiefel

It’s Saturday evening at Benaroya Hall. The windows glow in the fading light over the bustle of traffic on Third Avenue in downtown Seattle. Groups of people begin to gather for a concert, as they do almost every weekend, under the glistening glass chandeliers designed by Dale Chihuly.

But tonight they’re here for something different.

For the past three months, veterans from Compass Housing Alliance have collaborated with Derek Bermel, the Seattle Symphony’s 2018–2019 Composer in Residence, to write a new work for the orchestra. Tonight they’ll hear the world premiere during a free concert for the community.

Curated by the veterans themselves, the concert celebrates and honors service members, past and present, and reflects on their experiences returning to civilian life. For the veterans in the project, who are transitioning into stable housing after experiencing homelessness, it’s a moment to share their story with the rest of our community.

As the audience enters the hall, Chris and Steve, two veterans in the project, watch nervously in anticipation. The lights dim and the concert opens with the national anthem and a medley of anthems from each service branch. But then the orchestra turns to a new work — Bermel has set one of Steve’s poems to music.

“Three months ago if somebody had told me that somebody would be singing something I wrote on stage…I never would have believed them,” says Steve. “I was just thinking I was going to die in obscurity. Somebody would find my junk somewhere and throw it in the garbage. And that would be it.”

Derek Bermel
Guest vocalist Robin Henderson sings “My Continent, My County,” featuring poetry by Steve, a veteran from Compass Housing Alliance, and music by Composer in Residence Derek Bermel. (Photo: James Holt)

Guest vocalist Robin Henderson, a veteran of the United States Navy, sings Steve’s poetry for the gathered community. Her voice, richly expressive, soars as she sings his tribute to the nation he has served. For Steve, and everyone gathered, it’s an unforgettable moment. “I liked the young lady singing my song. That put a lump in my throat,” he says quietly afterwards.

The concert is a project of the Seattle Symphony’s Simple Gifts initiative. After consulting local nonprofit partners, the Symphony launched the initiative in 2016. In addition to creative projects, which bring the community voices and stories onto the stage, the program provides free tickets and encourages musicians, board, volunteers and staff to volunteer as part of regular service projects.

“The Seattle Symphony believes in the power of music to create positive impacts on people who are experiencing stress, isolation and challenges in their lives,” says Laura Reynolds, Vice President of Education & Community Engagement. “Through partnerships with organizations like Compass, we’ve learned that creative projects provide a safe, stable environment for participants and help connect people from different backgrounds through shared experiences.”

The project with Compass Housing Alliance is the orchestra’s fifth creative work created alongside community members through the Simple Gifts initiative.

The veterans in the project started preparing in February. Through a series of conversations about the music they loved, reactions to recordings of symphonic music, and discussions about their experiences in the service, Bermel and the veterans composed the piece together.

Seth Parker Woods
Chris, Steve and Derek Bermel take a bow together after the concert with the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall. (Photo: James Holt)

Entitled Reflections on Service, the music incorporates the veteran’s voices over layered sounds in the orchestra. It moves from the intense emotions of joining the service and deploying to calmer, more optimistic sounds in the second movement.

“Every service member, everyone who goes in, your lifestyle changes. And you learn that aspect of it,” says Chris. It’s the returning home, and re-integrating into civilian life, that can be difficult, he explains. “This piece represents a movement out of a depressive state and forward in my life. To see the light and move forward.”

More than anything, the veterans involved with the project wanted the audience to see them as people like themselves — that their experiences alone don’t define them.

“We're your brothers, your uncles. We're your fathers, we're your sons,” Steve told everyone. “Our experiences have been a little bit different because our life path veered into a different direction, but we're just like anybody else.”

My Continent, My Country

By Steve Black

My continent, my country,
The land I’d like to see
My continent, my country,
The place I’d like to be

Shining in the sun
A land where I can run free
My continent, my country
Living hope stretched out before me,
Somewhere between the sea to shining sea

In between red, white, and blue
A space for me, a space for you
A place that means much more to me
Than what my eyes can see
Please always hold out the promise of freedom to me.

My continent, my country,
Living hope stretched out before me
Somewhere beyond the sea to shining sea
Please always hold out the promise of freedom to me.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

How You Can Help

We hope you will learn more about all the organizations that partner with us in our Simple Gifts initiative and seek out opportunities to help others in your own communities. Thank you for joining us in lifting up our fellow community members. To support Simple Gifts, give online or call Donor Relations at 206.215.4832. Every gift makes a difference!


Simple Gifts is supported by a generous grant from the American Orchestras' Futures Fund, a program of the League of American Orchestras made possible by funding from the Ann & Gordon Getty Foundation.

The Seattle Symphony’s Community programs are supported by Aetna, Ann & Gordon Getty Foundation, Citi Community Capital, the League of American Orchestras, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Tulalip Tribes Charitable Fund, the U.S. Bank Foundation, Wells Fargo Foundation, the Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati Foundation, and individual contributions to the Seattle Symphony Annual Fund.

Posted on May 24, 2019