Musician Spotlight


Melissa Guttman

Interviewed by: Courtney Mayes

What is your musical background?
I started singing in middle school, and I trained in musical theatre techniques at Performers Theatre Workshop and Cap 21 during high school. Then I went to college at Berklee College of Music where I studied voice. After this I moved to NYC, and had various gigs as a background vocalist and worked with a hip-hop & Shakespeare project called Sonnet Man. I studied with voice coaches Jennifer Hamady and David Friedman who emphasized the mind-body connection in singing. I began teaching voice lessons, specializing in the psychology of the voice- how we can use it for self-discovery, healing, and self-expression. I’ve recently been accepted to NYU for their graduate program in music therapy.

How long have you been working with Voices of Valor and what role do you play? 

This is my 3rd time co-leading an 8-week Voices of Valor songwriting session with Benny Harrison, and it has been about a year since I started. Benny and I are Musician/Facilitators for Voices of Valor. We work with homeless veterans who are recovering from conditions such as depression, PTS, and substance abuse. We help them create a song based on their own experiences with the hope that they find healing through the music making process.

Benny and I share roles quite a bit, especially in the beginning, but once we get into the songwriting stage, he plays guitar or piano, and assists the veterans with composing the music, while I focus more on facilitating the development of the lyrics. Together, and as a group, we work out the melody.

Where do you lead your sessions?

I lead sessions at Veteran’s Haven North, a transitional housing facility administered by a very caring and wonderful staff in Glen Gardner, NJ.

What is your favorite part of leading Voices of Valor sessions?

Each new session is unique, as we always have new people joining as well as returning participants. Since we create the song based on their collective musical ideas and personal stories, we can never predict ahead of time what the song will be like. I really love the process of listening to the veterans’ stories, and helping them draw lyrics from their real experiences. It’s only a matter of time before a common theme emerges that becomes the foundation of our chorus. It’s exciting to be on the verge of that discovery.

My other favorite part is when our hard work culminates in a day at the recording studio. Most of our vets have never recorded professionally, and it adds a lot of magic and excitement to the experience. I look at it as a celebration of how far they’ve come and what they’ve created together. We always have a lot of fun.

What is the most rewarding part about working with VOV?

I love seeing the transformations in the participants. There are people who come in to the first class withdrawn and somber, and gradually through the experience of sharing their stories in a safe environment, they come out of their shell. It is awesome to see them start connecting with others in their community, joking around, giving and receiving support. And together, they turn their pain into something positive.

There are also people who haven’t sung or written music since they were young, and they wonder if they’ve lost those gifts. Simply by opening themselves up to the process, lyrical and musical ideas start coming out. They rediscover themselves as artists, and remember how joyful it can be to create something.

I think at the heart of this, they are building trust within themselves and with others, and that can be very healing for them and inspiring for us.