music therapy

Infused With Music: Maxwell Feinstein

By Shelby Smoak

When I get Maxwell Feinstein on the phone for our interview he is walking the streets of New Jersey on his way to Silver Horse Sound, the recording studio where Maxwell can be found tracking his own music, streaming live music posts on Facebook, or working with other artists who have booked time with him.

Today he has two rehearsals, a bass tracking session, and a mix session. “Tomorrow sees us doing two more recording sessions unrelated to the session previously mentioned and I’ll be meeting with a potential songwriting partner for some children’s music,” he adds. In a world where earning your keep with music has become an almost impossible task, Maxwell, a person with hemophilia, is able to keep things moving.

Maxwell got his first guitar at age eleven inspired by Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the “teen spirit” to play music struck hard. “I had been participating mostly in choirs or theater before this,” he says, “with brief flirtations (weeks of interest at most) on violin, flute, clarinet and saxophone.” But once Maxwell found the guitar, he took school hours to steal away into an unused handicapped bathroom which he transformed into his band room. “People used to use that space as a make-out room,” he says, “and I would just sit there practicing.” Maxwell adds, “If you wanted to get some necking in, you’d have to put up with me practicing” because nothing was getting between him and his guitar.

Now, in addition to running a studio, Maxwell dons a guitar or bass—depending on the need—in a bevy of touring bands: Jaime Della Fave (Jaimerosey), BWQ (or Project BWQ), Terra Electric, The Love Network and Debra Devi.

“My policy is basically that I’ll perform with anyone who asks!” he enthuses. He also writes, performs and records his own music, some of which can be heard on his solo release Round of Sound. In talking about Round of Sound, Maxwell calls it a labor of love with himself and other friends who helped him complete it. “I played most of the instruments save for the drums, and we did it in our rehearsal room just stringing microphones up and grabbing the sounds 60’s style with little regard for sounds bleeding onto the tracks.”

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Stand-out track “Mad Dog’s Promenade”, released in 2012, highlights Maxwell’s whimsical style with its off-the-cuff lyrical refrain, “Smile to myself as I walk.” “It’s a song about walking around town, going about my business while musing on how good I have it if I get to go make music when I’m done walking around,” he says of the track. But not all his songs are easy-going tunes. “I’ve written about coping with those I’ve lost,” he reflects, “and I’ve written about loves current and past. I’ll often write about whatever’s interesting to me at any given time.”

And then there is Maxwell’s hemophilia, which, as he says, “visits me when it wants.”

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He has lost cartilage in his elbows; played shows with ankle bleeds, knee bleeds and elbow bleeds; dealt with nose bleeds while on tour. “I had a nosebleed from two days before we left on a tour until the last tour day two weeks later,” he says. But it hasn’t stopped him. He takes care of his hemophilia so music can take care of him.

Before ending our interview, Maxwell offers this advice, culled from his own experiences: “Try your best to figure out what makes you happy and what builds community around you and how you can make it grow into something you can be proud of toiling for.” Maxwell has done just that.

Maxwell Feinstein’s music can be found at:

Infused With Music: Shawn Decker

By Shelby Smoak

When Shawn Decker finally finds some time in his busy life to chat, it is the Monday after the wildly fun 80’s Prom Dance Party event he organizes and performs at in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Not unsurprisingly, this 40-something hemophiliac is suffering from an ankle bleed, the battle wounds of being married to music. “I can deal with this,” he says, because ultimately for Shawn music is beneficial. It heals and “brings you peace of mind and calms you down.”

Shawn is perhaps more widely known through his bizarrely funny memoir My Pet Virus wherein cutting humor he adopts his HIV—a result of tainted plasma products—as a pseudo-pet and narrates how to move forward in life and not dwell on the past. It also is a sort-of love story where his future wife Gwenn plays a central role. Additionally, Shawn is a contributor to POZ magazine where he continues to be a vessel of humorous support to the HIV community.

But Shawn is also a musician. When he was a kid, he fell in love with 80’s synth-pop bands like Pet Shop Boys, Eurythmics, A-ha, and especially Depeche Mode who Shawn got to meet as part of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Since then, Shawn has channeled that passion into cover songs and original music which he files under his band name Synthetic Division.

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The humor that infused My Pet Virus is making its way into his music. Take for example the morbidly funny “I Wanna Be Cremated,” Synthetic Division’s spin on a classic Ramones song: “Twenty, twenty-four hours to go / I wanna be cremated / Just put me in the fire / turn me into smoke / you don’t have to worry / for once I will not choke.” Who wouldn’t die laughing at that? (Two can play at this morbid humor game, Shawn)

This kind of humor wasn’t always the case with Synthetic Division, a band that is now approaching its 20-year anniversary. An early track “Borrowed Time” from the album Bleeding Heart Cadaver darkly asks, “Am I on borrowed time, do I have much time left? / Is it not sinking in that I am checking out.” On their debut album, Tainted Goods, Shawn croons in “The Rain,” “Fade away / Fade away / Who’s going to fade just like the rain?” Even Shawn admits his music is taking a turn and is now more optimistic. “I feel I got the dark stuff out early,” he says, “and have started letting the lighter side come in,” adding, “I’m not afraid to sound cheesy.”

In talking with Shawn, he continuously reaffirms the importance of music in his life and its ability to create a continuous “safe space” which contributes to better moods and a general feeling of fulfillment.


He equates writing songs to going back to being a 13-year-old kid in his bedroom, “listening to music, getting my mind back on track, and getting away from HIV.” In contrast to his more lighthearted and less serious approach to music, Shawn is taking his health more seriously. For most of his adulthood, he didn’t have many bleeds, but in the last decade this has changed, and more bleeds equal more treatment center visits for his necessary infusions.

So finally, Shawn “took matters into his own hands” (literally) and began self-infusing. He is also embracing care for his mental health, a thing that he treats, again, with his music—loading old patches on his drum machine, tweaking sounds on his computer synths, and doing 80’s prom gigs. Ultimately Shawn is making the songs he wants to hear and to him, that is the sound of happiness.

Synthetic Division’s entire catalog can be found on Bandcamp:

Infused With Music: Elizabeth Vansant

By Shelby Smoak

While she may be a bit too shy to take the stage with her musical talent, Elizabeth VanSant is not shy to bring music therapy to people’s doorstep.

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Along with the rigorous demands of a college degree, Elizabeth recently finished her B.M. in Music Therapy at University of Kansas with over 1,200 clinical hours completed. She pulled up her mid-western roots and struck out for the rainy marine climate of Seattle where she has already started working.

“I’ve actually gotten three music-related jobs since moving to Seattle six weeks ago,” Elizabeth explained. One of the jobs includes working with special needs children and young adults, holding weekly social groups and using music to improve their social skills. Another job includes working with infants and toddlers as a music specialist. And a final job offer is so new she is still awaiting details. Certainly, it’s an exciting time for this twenty-something college grad.

Elizabeth’s passion for music started with dance, but the perils of having hemophilia B soon took away that opportunity. “From all the ballet, tap and jazz I was doing,” she says, “I got a stress fracture in my left ankle and was unable to continue dancing.” Enter then the piano, which she has now been playing since third grade. Along the way she has learned flute, guitar and a variety of percussion instruments. She also loves to sing. All these things are made obvious when watching Elizabeth play: she can fluidly sight read music without missing a note and can match the vocal with near pitch-perfection on any song.

After high school Elizabeth sought an avenue to have a career in music and began studying music therapy. She shares, “I immediately connected with it because I realized that I had used playing piano to express my emotions when learning how to self-infuse. I thought to myself, if I can help people with music in the same way that it helped me, I would be incredibly happy.”

Music therapy however, isn’t just listening or playing music. “While listening to music when you’re having a bleed or are not feeling well is therapeutic, it is not music therapy,” Elizabeth says.

Music therapy is working with a trained professional and using music as an intervention tool to accomplish a specific goal for healing or personal development. All persons receiving degrees in Music Therapy must attend an approved university and, before they can practice, must be board certified by The American Music Therapy Association.

The American Music Therapy Association’s website details several of the therapeutic advantages that music therapy can provide: alleviating pain, enhancing memory, managing stress, promoting physical rehabilitation and others. Therapy is also proven in treating conditions such as Alzheimer’s, autism, pain management, mental health issues and PTSD. Moreover, music therapy can be covered by certain insurances: Medicare under their Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP); Medicaid in certain states; and private insurers like Blue Cross Blue Shield, Aetna and Cigna.

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Elizabeth’s own struggles with hemophilia, she says, likely pushed her into music therapy. Because of her bleeding disorder, she gravitated toward playing more guitar and piano as she was growing up. “It was a release for my anxiety,” she says, adding “and playing piano and guitar certainly helps veins grow right before infusing.”

Now, hemophilia is only sometimes limiting: “One of my target areas is my right shoulder muscle, so sometimes it can be difficult to play guitar, which is the easiest way for me to accompany myself during music therapy sessions.” But that isn’t stopping her. “Thankfully, this hasn’t happened in a while, but it’s something to always be mindful of.”

In closing, Elizabeth advocates for persons to incorporate music in their lives. “Music can help you be more self-aware,” she says, “and it can be an excellent way to express, and even redirect, your emotions.”

In addition to her work in Seattle, Elizabeth takes her passion on the road, running Music Therapy workshops at various hemophilia events and sometimes overcoming her shyness for a few cameo appearances in The Bleeders, a hemophilia-inspired cover band.

More information on Music Therapy can be found at The American Music Therapy Association’s website:

Infused With Music: Trevor Graham

By Shelby Smoak

Bands like Insect Warfare, Napalm Death, 80K, Captain Cleanoff, Deathtoll and Extreme Noise Terror may not be on repeat on the typical stereo, but these heavy-metal/punk bands inspire New Jersey rocker and hemophiliac Trevor Graham to perform with his own grindcore outfit, Organ Dealer.

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Grindcore fuses the fast and aggressive music of metal with the brief song length and political discontent stylings of punk. Organ Dealer began with two of Trevor’s friends in 2014, when Trevor donned the bass guitar to add the undercurrent and punch such music depends upon.

Trevor started playing piano at five before joining his school band and making noise on trumpet, flute, clarinet and trombone. But at thirteen he found the guitar and hasn’t looked back. It was probably a good decision since that passion has carried Trevor all over the US and the world. In addition to US tour dates, Trevor has been lucky enough to play shows in France, Germany, England, Wales, Switzerland, and even the Czech Republic, and is currently booking more dates in Europe as well as Australia.


In talking with Trevor, he recalls a high point in his life when playing the Obscene Extreme Festival 2018 in the Czech Republic. “Never in a million years did I expect to be at that fest,” he says, “let alone sharing the same stage with some of the bands I grew up idolizing. The crowd and energy were insane and the biggest event we’ve ever played being it’s the largest grindcore fest in the world.”

Trevor is also lucky that his hemophilia hasn’t held him back. In fact, he remarks that the only annoying thing about his hemophilia is having to cart around his portable sharps container.

“So the loss of some luggage space has been the biggest inconvenience thankfully so far. But he adds that “the occasional conversation reassuring people you’re not shooting up dope in the van” is also a concern for this “legal” intravenous drug user.

Ultimately, music means everything to Trevor. “Everything else I do throughout the week is just so I have the means to do this,” he enthuses. “There’s not much I love more than playing live music and recording.” And for the budding musician out there, Trevor has this advice: “Do it. I am of the firm belief everyone should be playing music at some level. It’s very important to life. Plus, if you’re someone who gets bleeds often it’s not like you’re not going to be sitting around a lot - pick up an instrument and make that time productive!”

For passionate music lovers, Trevor has this advice: “I encourage all [persons with a bleeding disorder] to at least listen to as much music as you can. No matter how you’re feeling, music can always help make things better.” So, drop the needle. Listen to music. Go over to Spotify or iTunes and listen to Organ Dealer and feel better!

To hear Trevor’s song, visit: