Tunefoolery’s Mission to Unlock the Healing Power of Music
Part support group, part therapeutic aid and part booking agent, Tunefoolery was established in 1994. Its mission involves eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health issues, providing a performance outlet for musicians who have suffered from mental health problems, and performing for individuals in recovery at shelters and psychiatric hospitals.
“So much mental health treatment is focused on minimizing symptoms,” says the nonprofit’s executive director, Jens Rybo, 54. “If someone is depressed, the goal is to make them less depressed and, of course, that’s really important, but where Tunefoolery comes in is kind of the next level. It’s more about finding purpose and meaning and doing more than just maintaining your mental health.”
Rybo was a 1980s-era punk rock guitarist from Sweden who moved to the U.S. after his band was unable to achieve its desired notoriety. He decided to pursue a career as a mental health counselor. While studying counseling psychology at Lesley College in 1994, he began an internship at the Cambridge-Somerville Social Club, a mental health drop-in center.
Just a few months earlier, four musicians had started Tunefoolery at the social club with a $2,000 grant. When Rybo learned about the group and its mission, he was immediately drawn to the way Tunefoolery’s work combined his passion for helping others with his love of music. He started working with the group as a volunteer and became executive director in 2000. Rybo went on to marry one of Tunefoolery’s founding members, Theresa Thompson, who remains active in the organization as a workshop leader and performer.
When the Cambridge-Somerville Social Club was closed following state budget cuts, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health stepped in to provide Tunefoolerywith a new home in Boston’s South End. The group secured funding from various sources, including the Mass Cultural Council. It now boasts a roster of 55 artists and, in 2017, performed at over 270 gigs. It also has its own recording studio, where CDs are produced for sale. From the haunting viola da gamba of Hannah Davidson to Rick Davenport’s original rock ’n’ roll and Rybo’s own “Stronger Together,” the title track of Tunefoolery’s latest album, the compilations showcase originals and covers in numerous musical genres.The group captured the attention of Lowell attorney Michael Gallagher, who held a fundraiser for Tunefoolery and the Mental Health Association of Greater Lowell in 2017. “There is a mental health crisis in this state and across this nation, and organizations like Tunefoolery are on the front lines,” Gallagher says. “The beauty of Tunefoolery is that it gives folks with mental health challenges a chance to express themselves in a creative, productive way through music. Further, they often perform for individuals suffering from their own mental health issues in hospitals or other institutional settings. These are very talented performers for whom Tunefoolery provides a welcoming, supportive environment.”
Rybo notes that countless studies have demonstrated the benefits of music therapy. Though he doesn’t collect data, Rybo has definitely seen a reduction in the need for emergency services for the artists involved. He says of one member, “He had gone through periods of severe symptoms. He really struggled with isolation … and he was hospitalized on a regular basis. Since he joined Tunefoolery 17 years ago, he hasn’t been hospitalized once. It’s really made a difference for him. Before that, he was maybe sometimes playing in the subway, but now he’s playing at shelters and making money.”
Rybo says he has also seen a shift in the public’s perspective on mental health, perhaps because so many celebrities have gone public with their struggles. He realizes there’s still a long way to go, noting, “The ultimate goal is that we shut down because we’re not needed anymore … and there is no more stigma about mental health, but I don’t think that will happen in my life.”