Living through the COVID era has its benefits. We’ve all gained greater familiarity with the varieties and functions of specific face masks, for example. We’ve learned that elbow-rubbing is a perfectly acceptable way of greeting someone. And we’ve developed a much greater ability to estimate the distance of six feet. The negative side of the ledger is a little longer though, and top of the list for many is the social isolation. Apart from writers, astronauts and monks, there aren’t a lot of careers where prolonged isolation is a plus.

We are all still adapting to the new abnormal, looking for ways to connect without putting ourselves or our loved ones at risk. And while we all face some level of confusion and stress, some face greater stress than others. Veterans and law enforcement personnel, in particular, bear a uniquely heavy burden. High levels of anxiety and depression are common to veterans. Law enforcement officers are in careers that place them at risk daily. Remove the camaraderie that comes from social gathering, and these issues can become magnified.

Enter OC Music & Dance.

Founded by Charles Zhang, the entrepreneur behind the fast Asian food juggernaut Pick Up Stix, and overseen by its CEO Douglas Freeman, one of Orange County’s prominent civic leaders, OC Music & Dance has launched two music programs designed specifically to serve veterans and law enforcement personnel: Operation Gig and Project Beat.

“We’re at our core a music and dance performing arts school for children,” Freeman says. “We were formed for that purpose for children to study music and dance from their beginnings to professional careers, but as a result of the void caused by the pandemic and the shutdown period from March until we reopened in July, we spent a lot of time here talking about the broader community, the implications the pandemic has had on lives of adults, not just children.”

After exploring the cohorts within the adult world that were suffering the most, they identified first responders and veterans as groups that would benefit most from the type of programming OC Music & Dance offers.

“In thinking about first responders, we looked at healthcare workers, then law enforcement,” Freeman says, “and while we felt healthcare workers were truly in trouble and needed help and assistance to get through the emotional crisis, we weren’t sure they could participate while still immersed in it, and we did not know what when they’d be available.

“So we focused on law enforcement and veterans. The vets were very obvious. I’m an Air Force vet, the head of our operations is a Marine vet, and many of our vets are still suffering from the psychological and emotional impact of deployment to war zones, to Afghanistan, to the Middle East. I’m Vietnam era, but there are plenty of us still suffering from (the) impact of that war, and the thing about vets, is vets like to hang with vets. They understand each other very well, the bonding they have with each other when they’re deployed is a lifetime bond. It never changes. 

“Until the pandemic, vets would frequently gather together at clubs or bars or vet associations, at the VA or at vet centers. They hang together, talk to each other, relate to each other, and all that was put on hold. We felt isolation was a serious threat to the health of these men and women, we thought we could thread the needle, not just bring them together but build new friendships and new community.”

The result, for veterans, was Operation Gig.

The program is intended to bring these vets and spouses and kids together, where they can all play music together, where they can bring their wife or husband, or 20-year-old son or daughter, and make music together in a safe and protective environment. The program will incorporate multiple small (4-10 musicians) ensembles, guided by professional coaches, with participants provided with the resources they need to learn, rehearse and perform either before live audiences (if permitted at the time) or through live streaming to the world at large.

“It’s been my anecdotal experience, not tested by scientific means, but it’s been true for most of the four decades I’ve spent around musicians, that in a group of 100 men and women, somewhere between 30 and 40 will be what I call closet musicians,” Freeman says. “Ask someone, ‘You ever play music?’ and you hear ‘Yeah, I was in my high school band, the Marine band, a garage band, but I just play my trumpet in my garage now.’ The coincidence isn’t a coincidence. Music was an important part of a lot of the lives of these men and women.”

Now, they have a creative outlet, a program free to veterans, no audition necessary.  Each band has a professional musician as a coach,  a professional who can assist in managing the band, offer help in repertoire, help in technique, advice in how to work within a style. Not only are the musical issues coached through, but the ancillary issues are as well. If they can play but don’t have an instrument, the program will provide it for them. If they can’t get to or from a rehearsal, volunteers are ready to send a car for them. If they’re not ready to perform, the program will provide classes.

“We realized that for a lot of vets, lots of personal issues get in the way,” Freeman says. “Things like transportation, not having a computer. Veterans are always dealing with life challenges, so we have a volunteer assigned to each band to be a liaison with the musicians to help with personal issues. That’s our goal, and we hope to get 10, 15, 20 bands, a couple hundred musicians, more or less. I don’t know how much. I’ve raised the funds, it’s all free to the vets. But we have to cover the cost of professional musicians, the costs for rehearsal venues. The community has responded, I could use more, but that’s the veterans’ program.”

To kick off Operation Gig, OC Music & Dance hosted  a live streamed concert and panel discussion which showcased a number of veteran musicians.  Among the performers were bands formed through an organization known as The Rock Club/Music is the Remedy.  Based in Long Beach, this group has been helping veterans through music instruction, education, and mentoring for the past 10 years.

Janette Williams, an Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War, is the singer for the band Rock for Vets which was originally formed as a part of The Rock Club/Music is the Remedy. Her band recently performed during a kick-off concert for Operation Gig, a new program run by OC Music & Dance which supports music making by veterans. Credit: Photo courtesy of OCMD

The program for law enforcement officers, Project Beat, is similarly structured, although the problems that officers face are much different.

The challenge in law enforcement is the officers have been thrust into crowds,” Freeman says, “and they want to go away from the crowds sometimes. There’s the pandemic issue, their constant exposure. Their job is get in front of people, to assist, to be around people all the time, and also there are the augmented issues related to social justice. There are lots of angry crowds, and officers are doing their best to keep peace, and it’s very hard when people are yelling at you like you were a wild animal and all you’re trying to do is keep people safe.”

With that in mind Project Beat emerged as a place for law enforcement personnel to get away and take a break from their responsibilities. Project Beat is open to Orange County law enforcement officers, sheriff’s deputies and their families to participate in small ensembles, one or more from each department, precinct, station or substation.

“Music has tremendous healing benefit,” Freeman says. “We know from studies that music is an accepted treatment for anxiety, for isolation, for self-doubt. It gives you something that inspires you. It’s creative, collaborative, you get to do something that’s beautiful, and the result has an impact on you as a human being.

“With the law enforcement officers, we’re going to do that by communities, so Santa Ana will create its own band, Fullerton will have its own band, Tustin will have its band.  And at the end of the program, we’re going to have a battle of the bands to determine the best law enforcement band in Orange County. Officers are very competitive people within departments, between departments, and between police and sheriff or fire departments. They’re very competitive, that’s the nature of the beast, so we’ll put that program together, sometime in January we assume, an outdoor drive-in competition between all the law enforcement bands, at the Muckenthaler Center.

“When Charlie Zhang created the school, it was created for kids to follow their dreams, but he’s really thinking it’s important for the community to be filled with music. In forming these programs, we wanted to be sure we weren’t violating his goal, and to his credit he was completely supportive of expanding music to heal so many of our communities. It’s a bizarre thing for a school like ours to do, but we’re in bizarre times.”

From the logistics standpoint, there was much more to consider beyond whether to play Mustang Sally or not. Musicians need space to practice and the freedom to make a little noise. A band can’t simply set up in a park and begin blasting away.

“We need to be outdoors to be safe for health reasons,” Freeman says, “so I went to Emile Haddad at FivePoint, and asked Emile if we could create venues in the Great Park where I could bring these bands, spread them out, come once a week, and practice for 90 minutes, that we’d provide all the equipment, but needed a place with safe lighting and power and where we can store instruments in the evening. I gave him a whole laundry list, and he said ‘Absolutely, we’ll make it happen.’ It was a minute-long conversation. We’re not interfering, it’s not noise, not interruption, not wild folks having a giant party, but vets and law enforcement officers there to just get away and play music. A very different experience. FivePoint has been an incredible partner in this program, and I can’t express how grateful I am.”

So while we’re still waiting for concert halls to reopen, still looking for that first opportunity to hear live music surrounded by others who are as excited as you are, there are small ways to move the needle, to keep the art alive, and to remind ourselves that when we face enormous challenges — personally and collectively — one thing humanity has always done is turn to music.

“One of the goals I had in developing this was to say to the broader community, we’re in this together,” Freeman says. “We’re in this together, so do what you can do to help the person you’re next to, don’t just hunker down, but ask how you can be of value to the broader community and how you can lift up all of our spirits. If we do that, when this is done we’ll be better connected than when we were before we were forced to hibernate. At the end of the day, we’re doing something to help our community get through.”

Peter Lefevre is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at

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