Trauma and Triumph: How Music Can Heal, Empower, and Inspire Change

By: Kristen Friend (Fowler)

Photo Credit: Nina Yoshida Nelsen


Music serves many roles for people throughout their lives. For some, it’s a form of entertainment or escape. For others, it’s a purpose or a passion. Throughout my life, it has served as a comforter, a healer, a motivator, and a medium through which I affect change in the world. Below, you will find my story of how music carried me through some of the darkest times in my life and ultimately how I used music to tell my story on my terms. I want to issue a trigger warning before reading onward, as my story is about sexual assault, and I know that not everyone will be in a place where reading this is what’s best.

Throughout my childhood, I struggled with anxiety and depression, though I did not have the luxury of having those terms to describe it. I was told I was “dramatic” and “moody,” but really, something deeper was going on. In the midst of my own internal chaos, I turned to a 19-year-old friend of my older sister, confiding in him and sharing my thoughts with him. Eventually, I believed that I was in love, and he manipulated me into believing he felt the same way. When I was 13 years old, I was sexually assaulted by this person twice.

In the aftermath of the assaults, I felt lost, confused, heartbroken, and ashamed. I desperately clung to the horn like a life boat. I practiced hours every day because it provided relief from the pain. It allowed me to release my feelings into the world without having to articulate what those feelings meant or where they originated. The horn freed me to emote and express, and it was my saving grace.

Eventually, my mind managed to completely repress my memory of the assault. The event was simply too traumatic for my teenage self to handle. The repression left behind emotional symptoms that went unexplained for years: perfectionism, increased anxiety and depression, and a deep sense of shame and self-hatred. I always felt like I had to make up for something and that nothing I did was good enough.

For eleven years, I lived in this constant state of denial. I graduated high school, completed a Bachelors and Masters at Virginia Tech, and I was accepted into the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University to begin my Masters in Horn Performance in Fall of 2014. Despite the mental health concerns, it appeared like I was on the right track.

I arrived to Bloomington in 2014 and won my very first professional audition as second horn in the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic. I placed well in school orchestra auditions, and I did well on my placement exams. It seemed like I was setting myself up to have a wonderful experience at IU. However, all of this success happened over a backdrop of a prolonged, severe depressive episode that left me feeling worthless and made me question my purpose in this life. I had to seek professional help. I entered therapy in September of 2014 with the most incredible therapist at the campus counseling center. We worked through family, life events, emotions, patterns of thought, and feelings of self-worth. After months of hard work, my life was starting to make sense to me. I felt better. I felt healthy. I felt worthy.

That’s when it hit me. In March of 2015, I was driving home from Wind Ensemble rehearsal listening to NPR’s show, “All Things Considered.” The topic was childhood trauma, and when they said the words, “childhood sexual assault,” little flashes of memories lit up my thoughts. I thought to myself, “no, that’s not what that was!” I kept driving, memories flooding in, until I had to pull over. I just couldn’t lie to myself anymore. I knew this was my story.

Fortunately, I had therapy the very next day. We started down the path of recovering from my trauma, a process that I had put on hold for eleven years. It felt like opening up a time capsule, and I began to work through the details of my assault. This included telling family and friends, and it included sending a letter to my perpetrator. One of my dearest friends, who is also a survivor of sexual assault, told me a piece of advice that she had been given. She said, “one day, you’ll make this horrible thing into something positive.” That quote stuck with me, and I wondered how in the world that advice would ever come to fruition.

One day, in the fall of 2015, the idea hit me. I needed to fulfill my Masters Recital requirement, and I wanted to turn it into a special project with a theme. That’s when “Trauma and Triumph” was born. After hours and hours of brainstorming over several weeks, I came up with the idea of creating and performing a recital tour during Sexual Assault Awareness Month that told my own story of being sexually assaulted through original spoken word and the works of female composers. I knew that my professor, Jeff Nelsen, had to approve of the idea, so I decided to share my project during my next lesson.

I entered Jeff’s office, apprehensive to share my truth with another person. As I shared my story, he responded with an abundance of compassion and empathy, and when I told him my recital plans, he was nothing but supportive. He even introduced me to one piece I ended up using to open up my recital.

In collaboration with two amazing pianists, Daniel Inamorato in Bloomington and Nancy Harder in Blacksburg, I presented “Trauma and Triumph” at both Virginia Tech and Indiana University in April of 2016. As a part of the event, local and on-campus organizations at both schools came out to the recital and set up information tables with resources. Attendees collected pamphlets, information cards, and stickers. When I came out of the recital hall at the conclusion of my IU recital, my studio mates cheered, proudly wearing teal ribbon stickers. I also decided to live-stream both events, and I received several touching Facebook messages from strangers who had watched the recital from across the country and who were touched by its message.

In June of 2017, I shared my story, “Trauma and Triumph” at the International Women’s Brass Conference with the amazing Dr. Laurel Black on piano. It was a truly remarkable experience to have such a large platform to share my story and advocate for survivors, and the response was nothing but warm and grateful.

It is my mission to continue to share my story with the purpose of empowering others. I want to encourage you all to consider what story you have in you that needs to be shared. Our instruments are not only vehicles for musical expression, but also vehicles to create change. What do you want to say with your horn, and how do you want it to impact your audience?

If you have any questions or thoughts, please feel free to email me to further discuss what you’ve read. Thank you so much for reading my story.

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