Exchange of Energy: Music and MemoriesDec 28, 2020 08:50AM ● By Virginia Kathryn Gallner
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Connecting with audiences is an essential part of performing. From the festival circuit to intimate bar shows, local musician and multi-instrumentalist Cole Eisenmenger stays musically busy outside of his work as a music therapist.
A brief glance across his music room reveals many pieces of Eisenmenger: the lyrics notebook propped on his piano, the tapestry on the wall, the Mellotron synthesizer in the corner.
“They tell us in school, don’t just notice the person, notice everything around them,” Eisenmenger said, resting his guitar on one knee. “What things are on their wall? What art and decorations are there?”
This awareness is learned from years of working in the field of music therapy. Working with people who have special needs, or with people who are experiencing memory loss, Eisenmenger knows the importance of coming back to the present moment.
Eisenmenger first heard about music therapy in high school, when U.S. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords resigned after an assassination attempt left her with a severe brain injury. He was fascinated by the music therapy aspects of her rehabilitation.
At University of Kansas, he started as a music therapy major, taking courses in psychology, anatomy, and field research, followed by a practicum and internship. His final semester in the program was completed at MusicWorx in San Diego, and he became a board-certified music therapist.
The American Music Therapy Association describes the field as “an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals.” On a senate panel about music therapy research with famed neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead said that “the rhythmic manipulation of sound can be used for health and healing.”
At the beginning of his career, Eisenmenger saw many misconceptions about music therapy. One of the first companies for whom he contracted brought in a clarinet player, as a volunteer, to play soothing music for patients. He explained there is much more to music therapy than simply playing music, contrary to popular perception. It requires a deep understanding of human psychology, and even anatomy and physiology, and should be individualized to each patient.
“The choice of music, tempo, dynamic, melody, and mode…really can affect the human brain,” he said.
For certified music therapists, it is a very interactive experience, bringing in different instruments for individuals to use. (With the pandemic, Eisenmenger noted there is a need to have minimal contact with objects, so he has modified his processes accordingly.)
In his current position at Endless Journey Hospice, he works with people who have varying forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Music therapy is very effective for individuals who are nonverbal. “Sometimes afterwards, after you hear them sing, they might be able to communicate better.”
Eisenmenger can reach people through different sounds, like an ocean drum. “A certain song or sound can bring back a certain memory. A client will be talking about dancing with his wife or walking on a beach.” He uses these sounds to evoke memories and work past communication barriers, as well as to reduce pain and anxiety.
Many of these skills come to the stage with him. Eisenmenger’s profession enhances his intuition as a performer.
“Whenever you make music for someone or with someone, there is an exchange of energy. On a live stage, maybe the crowd isn’t feeling it too much, so maybe you change your set list a bit. Maybe you notice your stage presence is starting to be a bit obnoxious,” he said with a laugh.
Since November 2017, Eisenmenger’s main project has been Mr. E and the Stringless Kite, with his wife Kristen Taylor on vocals. Their debut show was in early 2018 for New Music Mondays at The Waiting Room Lounge in Benson. They started as a straightforward folk-rock band with a southern twang. Their original guitar player, Connor Swanson, brought a grittier sound, wielding a slide guitar in the style of Derek Trucks. When Swanson moved to Austin, Eisenmenger and Taylor took the opportunity to explore new musical horizons.
Over time, they developed a more psychedelic sound. Bringing in Tom Adelman and Jake Reisdorff (from The Midland Band), Eisenmenger moved them in a more progressive direction. Their songs remain grounded in folk and roots, with vocal harmonies inspired by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, as well as ballads drawing on the folk-rock style of Neil Young.
Several songs on their 2019 album Siren Songs were characterized by woodwind, strings, and organ sounds on the Mellotron, a synthesizer made popular in the 1970s by bands such as The Moody Blues, The Beatles, and early progressive rock band King Crimson.
Recently, Eisenmenger has started some new projects. Taylor is the primary songwriter for Little Rooms, where Eisenmenger gives instrumental support. He has also started ethereal folk-rock project Wyrmwood, returning to his roots in the Americana world, and hopes to get together his old band The North Fork when time allows.
“I’m just trying to keep my musical universe full,” he said. “That’s where I’m living my best life.”
Right now, Eisenmenger is limiting his live performances to outdoor shows for safety reasons. He remains hopeful for the spring.
“Even if we’re not playing for other people yet, we’ve got to keep creating.”
This article was printed in the January/February 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.