Monday, Feb. 24, 2014
11:20 PM EST
Easton jazz singer June Thomas finds peace of mind among musical notes
Jazz singer June Thomas found in music what medications could not provide her: a sense of well-being. She teaches lessons at Skip Azzalina Music Instruction in Easton. (EMILY ROBSON, THE MORNING CALL / February 18, 2014)
By Milton D. Carrero, Of The Morning Call
7:42 p.m. EST, February 24, 2014
Jazz singer June Thomas developed a method to get rid of tormenting thoughts.
The Easton musician would hum melodies and musical ideas until the darkness eased. It's a method that she fine-tuned as a youngster and that still serves the veteran singer and music teacher well.
"I've become a good teacher," says Thomas, "because of all the things that I've dealt with. Because everybody feels that to a degree."
Mental health challenges have affected her family on more than one occasion. She has seen close relatives struggle with schizophrenia and she experienced what it is like to be paralyzed by depression.
"I had some type of learning disability," she says. "It was almost like getting stuck. It's very vague because when I was growing up, they just put you on drugs."
The mental methods she had devised to get herself out of those stuck states stopped working by the time Thomas reached puberty.
"It was almost like my thoughts were fragmented," she recalls. "In other words, they weren't going in a straight lines, they were coming back at me."
The now 52-year-old spent the better part of her high school years and some of her college days grappling with deep sadness, insecurity and the side effects of medications, which were prescribed to enable her to get out of bed some days.
"I know that I felt like I had holes in my thinking," Thomas says. "I had a very strong mind and a strong will. I would come home mentally exhausted, not knowing that wasn't how it was for everybody else."
She lived amid two polarities: "It was either fail or make As." She needed to find a gray area and she found it in the music that emerged easily from her, as she mixed white and black keys to construct melodies on the piano.
"Sometimes you could be so overwhelmed with this blackness that you don't even feel like you're there," she says, "like you're not even a person. And I knew I had music. I knew this is me, this is uniquely me."
The National Institutes of Health recognizes the benefits of music therapy to alliviate stress, pain and symptoms of mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and autism, among other conditions. It has been shown helpful in regulating blood pressure, reducing heart rate and improving the health of people suffering from heart disease, cancer and respiratory conditions.
The strength that Thomas derived from focusing on her music studies enabled her to not only finish her degree, but to also find ways of easing off the medications.
"They told me it would balance me out, but I felt nothing and I had side effects," she says. "So it wasn't even worth it."
Thomas reached out to a nutritionist, who recommended a strict diet to rid her body of toxins. Thomas stuck to the plan and soon began to notice some changes. She was thinking clearly and the effect was long lasting.
She went on to complete a master's degree in jazz studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is also a piano and voice teacher at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
But while music provided a home for Thomas, it also added some challenges. Before she could lose herself in the songs, she needed to prepare and deal with the angst of going on stage. When she first started singing at restaurants and piano bars, she would come home and cry, beaten by her own criticism.
These thoughts would sometimes startle her in the middle of her performances, causing her to be distracted by the color of the curtains in the room, the number of people in the audience and other trivialities that would eventually wear down her confidence.
Music and life were equally challenging at times. They were also equally rewarding once she learned to trust her inner voice.
"This area has been wonderful for music," Thomas says. "I was very shy, my social skills were very backward. I had a chance to heal from that in the music scene. The more confident I became as a person, the more it affected my music, and vice versa."
Copyright © 2014, The Morning Call
Thomas has collaborated with well-known jazz musicians in the area, including Dave Liebman and Phil Woods, who have been named National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters, considered the nation's highest honor for jazz musicians.
She has left her mark in the local music scene, according to Pennsylvania Jazz Collective's artistic director, Alan Gaumer.
"She has worked with a lot of core groups in the area," Gaumer says. "She's had a wide arc of experience. She's well-schooled, very talented lady – great singer."
She recently contributed background vocals as a "Bobette" on Bob Dorough's CD release "Duets," recorded at Red Rock Studios in Saylorsburg, Monroe County.
Thomas, who performs regularly in the area, uses what she has learned as a lifetime musician to help others tap into their personal source of creativity. Her goal, she says, is to not only be a musical teacher, but to also be a life mentor. It's what motivates her every day. Helping others, she says, is also a way of helping herself.
"We are all fundamentally connected," she says. "On a level we are all one. It sounds all cosmic and that, but I honestly believe it. Music is a way to tap into that in a way that could be very real."
HEAR HER LIVE
•6-9 p.m. Friday: Joy Bohannon & June Thomas Jazz Duo at Assante's Ristorante, 2050 Main Street, Northampton.
•7 p.m. Saturday: With Maria Woodford & Co. at Rival's Sports Bar & Nightclub, 5 Lehns Court, Easton. Woodford with her full blues band including Dennis Gruenling, June Thomas, Rob Fraser, Lorenzo Branca and Jake Heck.
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