Opinion: Blue Jay Band Performs Spectacular Show at Fulton State Hospital
From top to bottom, left to right, Westminster’s Blue Jay Band is comprised of: flutist Lydia Colvin, ’17; clarinetist Sawyer Young, ’17; drummer Eric Woytus, ’19; trumpeter Jarod McKee, ’20; tenor saxophonist Jon Chandler, visiting professor of British History; trombonist Dr. Cliff Cain, professor of religious studies; trumpeter Neil Hunt, transfer credit coordinator and instructor of Westminster seminar; bass guitarist Jack Perdue, ’20; and director and trumpeter Alan Nellis, former Wellness Center administrative assistant. PHOTO COURTESY OF LETICIA FERREIRA.
BY ERIC WOYTUS
In the past, the Westminster Blue Jay Band has performed at sporting events, pep rallies and even nursing homes, but our recent visit to the Fulton State Hospital was unlike anything the band had ever done. This semester, the band enters its fourth year of service to Westminster since its humble commencement by then part-time Wellness Center administrative assistant, Alan Nellis.
Alan, our director, has spent many years of his life not only playing music but also 25 years as an activity therapist and librarian at the Fulton State Hospital, and this event was an emotionally charged showcase of his insurmountable care and compassion for this school, his community and his fellow man.
Our experience began at the entrance of the Biggs Forensic Center, Missouri’s only maximum security psychiatric hospital. Here, patients who have been committed by Missouri courts receive treatment for severe mental illness related to violent crimes. All nine of us, with our bulky equipment, struggled to fit into the confined hallway leading to the security checkpoint. No doubt induced by a collective apprehension to enter the facilities, the group remained silent as we prepared to travel to the auditorium. The vocalized security protocol regarding riots and hostage situations and the waiver they asked us to sign before performing did not provide us any consolation. Still, it did not take long for us to pass through security. The heavy glass doors slowly locked behind us, intimating the nature of our task at hand.
Once inside, Alan eagerly led the group down the long hallways. As he made small talk with his longtime friends on the hospital staff, the rest of us remained silently mesmerized by the intricacies of the building. To say these facilities are outdated is an understatement. In some areas, I could easily reach up and place my palms on the low ceilings. Rusty bars lined the outside of the thick glass windows. The hallways were so long and narrow that they felt considerably eerie at times.
Rusty bars lined the outside of the thick glass windows. The hallways were so long and narrow that they felt considerably eerie at times.
Arriving in the auditorium, it was as though we had been transported back to 1970. From the yellow wall hues to the wood-paneled speakers, it is safe to say that the gymnasium had not undergone significant renovations in the past few decades.
“Yep, this building is really starting to show its age,” laughed Alan.
In fact, the entire property is plagued by crumbling, abandoned and obsolete facilities. Efforts to keep the hospital in accordance with basic safety codes drain valuable taxpayer funds annually. Luckily, after extensive political battles, the hospital has finally received the multimillion-dollar funds required to erect brand-new, state-of-the-art facilities and demolish outdated buildings. The massive construction project underway was impossible to miss when we pulled up to the front gate of the complex.
After our short journey through Biggs, we had a greater appreciation for that construction project and all the advanced psychiatric services it promised for Missouri citizens.
As Alan made small talk with his longtime friends on the hospital staff, the rest of us remained silently mesmerized by the intricacies of the building.
Having arrived at the stage, everyone began lifting my heavy drum hardware up on stage. As always, I had to race to assemble the kit before the audience arrived. As I finished up, about 30 patients and a handful of hospital staff had trickled into the gymnasium. Immediately, several of the patients greeted Alan as he tuned his trumpet.
“Hey! Alan’s here!” someone called out.
“How ya doin,’ Alan?” inquired another.
Clearly, our director had made some significant connections with many individuals during his extensive work in this hospital.
Once the spectators settled down in their chairs, we began the show. Alan introduced us through a tiny public address system and then counted, “Ah one, two, three, four!” The crack of the drums coupled with the deafening attack of our horns emanated through the building. The faces of the patients glowed with excitement. Some showed off their air guitar skills, while others just smiled. In an instant, our first tune ended, accompanied by thunderous applause. Every song concluded with a marvelous echo. Though slightly unfamiliar with the overwhelming harmonics of the old building, the band members powered through each song like professionals.
Tearing it up on the tenor sax, Jon Chandler intricately commanded every jazz solo opportunity. In fact, all soloists seemed to feed off the energy of the crowd, stepping outside their comfort zones in tremendous style. Glancing over at Cliff Cain, I could only smile as his trombone waved energetically through the air. Powerfully enunciating each note, at times, the man squatted low to the ground to ensure his instrument was heard. All of my bandmates and I confidently brought forth everything we practiced this semester, conducting a truly spectacular show.
Between each song, Alan encouraged the crowd to guess the song titles. They gleefully identified the popular tunes one-by-one. Most notably, as we performed our pep band arrangement of “Ghostbusters,” the patients sang the words with roaring laughter. Although I had performed for many crowds in the past, I can honestly say that this was the most energetic, engaged and appreciative crowd I have ever entertained.
When we ended the 45-minute show, the patients again thanked us with enthusiastic applause and polite fist bumps. Before they left, many approached Alan to thank him personally. Multiple patients greeted me with gratitude. Alan reminded us all that these patients “never get anything quite like this.”
The crack of the drums coupled with the deafening attack of our horns emanated through the building. The faces of the patients glowed with excitement.
Through this service project, Alan exhibited precisely the values characteristic of Westminster staff. He has dedicated his talent to service. Whether he is performing in a professional band, directing the Blue Jay Band or interacting with a patient in the hospital, Alan is engaged, hardworking and compassionate. His efforts to assemble the Blue Jay Band positively impact the college community more than anyone will ever realize. This show at the Fulton State Hospital provided me with a glimpse of why he spends his life working in this field.
This exhausting yet enjoyable experience reminded me exactly why I enjoy playing music. The therapeutic capabilities of music can astound even the most skillful physicians and psychiatrists. Likewise, the patients in that audience greatly enjoyed our show. Every member of that hospital is a person, not a prisoner. A short interaction with these individuals can instantly shatter any false notions about mental illness. Given the proper facilities, these patients can find the stability necessary to achieve success in society. Any number of those patients could easily be a friend or a family member of ours, and we must treat them as such. We all have our good days and bad days, and I am honored and humbled to have been part of the Westminster organization that ensured this particular day was a good one for the patients in that audience.
To learn more about the projects underway at the Fulton State Hospital, visit: http://dmh.mo.gov/fulton/