Do-Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers: Tunefoolery

tunefooleryPhoto by Sasha Pedro.

Tunefoolery brings together a vibrant mix of musicians united by their journey through mental health recovery. The group’s primary goals are to support musicians in mental health recovery, share music with others who are grappling with mental health challenges, and work toward eliminating stigma surrounding mental illnesses. 

“So much mental health treatment is about trying to minimize the struggling, but then when people are doing better then they’re gone,” says Executive Director Jens Rybo, a Cambridge resident and a licensed mental health counselor. “We just play music, and I think people really like that idea that something positive is coming out of the mental health system, because there’s so much focus on the negative.”

Founded in 1994 at the Cambridge-Somerville Social Club, the non-profit is a lively community of over 60 musicians in mental health recovery, many of whom are from Cambridge or Somerville. The musicians perform up to 300 gigs a year, as solo acts or small ensembles, at mental health centers, psychiatric hospitals, shelters, and public open mic events. 

“A lot of my work is to be out there in the mental health community in Boston and just be part of changing the view that people in mental health recovery can’t contribute,” Rybo explains. “We all have something to contribute, and in our case it’s music. You do something that feels meaningful, that gives you a purpose, and that contributes to other people’s wellbeing.”

Tunefoolery musicians are often introduced to the organization through therapists or counselors, and strive to meet personal goals within the group with support from their peers. 

“What I like about Tunefoolery is that everybody’s working toward something, everybody has a goal, small or large, and they’re working toward it,” musician Trudi Goodman explains. “We all have our struggles but we all keep working. I’m a much better musician just from being around these people, because I learn a lot.”

Recently, Tunefoolery musicians have incorporated a focus on mindfulness into their performances—both for them and for the crowd—which seems to have had an impact on audiences in shelters who are recovering from mental illness.

“People in shelter situations often don’t show up more than once for something,” Goodman says. “I’ve got people now coming every single time we’re there, they’re looking forward to us being there, they’re getting a lot out of it, it helps them with their anxiety. The mindfulness has been a really good thing. This is just a small thing to get people to do for three minutes, and it works.”

“Where we play, people are extremely appreciative, because not only do we provide music … in places where they don’t get that, but it’s also provided by people who had similar experiences,” Rybo says. “A lot of our musicians have been homeless at some point, most of our musicians have been in psychiatric hospitals. So to have that aspect of it, it brings a lot of hope, and when people are in a dark place they can really need that.”

Tunefoolery holds auditions to ensure “that there’s a certain artistic quality,” Jens explains, but the group is a mix of different instruments and skill levels all working in tandem.

“I really appreciate being able to play with people who are understanding of my limitations and go along with whatever level of musicianship I’m at,” Jeff, a musician who only gave his first name, says.

Tunefoolery aims to make the musical experience about teamwork and collaboration, encouraging a tight-knit community of caring individuals.

“When we go through hard times, it either breaks us or we learn something from it,” Rybo says. “People really support each other even when they struggle, and there’s a lot of forgiveness and understanding that life is rough sometimes and we all do things that we’re not proud of, but we will come out on the other side. The level of acceptance is really important to me. We’re all different, but it’s something beautiful to coexist.”

This story originally appeared in the Environmental Issue issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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