Harpist and Dancer Jessica Brizuela on ‘Tuning the Soul’

During a typical music performance, Jessica Brizuela can switch from playing classical Bach-Grandjany Sarabande on the harp to rapping and doing a cover of “Finesse” by Bruno Mars featuring Cardi B.

Over the years, Jessica’s musical versatility has made her a sought-ought harpist and performer. She has been “tuning the soul” with her classic and eclectic contemporary harp performances to help alleviate anxiety and stress among the geriatric population, pediatric patients, teens/young adults, and individuals on the autism spectrum.

All photos courtesy Jessica Brizuela.

Since she was a child, Jessica has had the unique ability to soothe the soul through music. As a kid, her mom would comment on how soothing the harp sounded while Jessica practiced, expressing how it would help her unwind and relax.

“My mom inspired me to be who I am today. Most of what I do, I owe immense gratitude to my mom. She dedicated her life to her three kids and did all she could to give us a good life while raising us as a single mother,” says Jessica. 

Jessica’s mom—who survived and lived through the Salvadoran Civil War that started in the late 70s–encouraged her kids to stay active and lead healthy and happy lives through music and other creative forms of art and dance. 

At the age of 10, Jessica became classically trained on the harp and eventually branched out to incorporate contemporary music on the harp such as Jazz, Latin, and Pop. Growing up, Jessica was always surrounded by music and dance, and played almost every instrument imaginable before falling in love with the harp. 

All photos courtesy Jessica Brizuela

“My mom always wanted to give her kids the best and she knew we went through a lot of rough times that needed processing. So, she had us in various forms of activities to keep us busy and give us creative therapeutic outlets. “

With the support and encouragement from her mother, Jessica and her siblings received scholarship opportunities to attend a prestigious music conservatory in Pasadena, California. As the youngest in the family, Jessica pushed herself even further and played the piano, drums, and the harp. She enjoyed keeping herself busy and went on to try soccer, track, horseback riding, and various forms of dance like Tap, and Folklorico. For Jessica, the sky has always been the limit.

With the encouragement from her sister and harp teacher, Jessica was even more motivated than ever to pursue a career in music—something she never really thought was an option at the time. Jessica applied to Berklee College of Music and felt as though it was the perfect match because it tied her expertise in both music and health care, where she earned her degree in music therapy.

Growing up, Jessica was influenced by harpists Deborah Henson-Conant, Alfredo Rolando Ortiz, and Edmar Castañeda. “I’m fortunate enough to have met and developed relationships with all of them. I continue to be inspired by them and a wide range of other harpists.” 

At Berklee, she received a scholarship to pursue a bachelor of music degree in music therapy as a harp principle with a minor in psychology, and gained exceptional training and the ability to share her passion for music with different populations. 

“Having come from a very diverse background, what really set me apart as a harpist was my rhythm and ability to be different, veering out of just the classical realm of music,” said Jessica.

Learning to Embrace the Harp 

When she was in her teens, Jessica admits there were moments where she didn’t want to play the harp, an instrument which she says is often associated with a variety of stereotypes or commonly referenced as an instrument connoted to heaven or angels. 

“People may think this is a nice stereotype to have, but as a teenager playing drums in school, I did not want to have that stereotype. Being one of the few girls on the drumline, the boys used to jokingly tease me making some kind of angel reference, and I did not like it. So there came a point where I no longer wanted to play the harp or have it be a part of my identity,” said Jessica. 

Eventually, Jessica changed her perception about the harp after taking lessons from a harp teacher who individualized her lessons and re-routed her repertoire to being more eclectic, while integrating drumming on the harp.

Jessica had a deeper respect for the instrument and realized there was so much to learn from the harp. Today, she’s grateful she made the decision to pursue the harp because in many ways, the “harp chose her.” 

‘Tuning the Soul’ 

Today, Jessica owns her own private practice as a music therapist which she calls, “Tuning the Soul.” Jessica enjoys the versatility and flexibility of focusing on different aspects of music therapy, performance, and dance.

“I used to fill up my schedule doing music therapy, but I realized I like having balance so I do part time music therapy work, part time teaching, part time performing, part time creating, and part time enjoyment through dance and triathlons.”

Jessica currently works with individuals on the autism spectrum and older adults at various facilities, with a focus on music therapy groups for adults in memory care. 

“I also work one on one with individuals on the autism spectrum, currently I’m working mostly with teens. As part of the music therapy, I integrate teaching adapted music lessons, individualizing lessons to their needs, interests, and abilities.”

As a board certified music therapist, Jessica believes we all need music and art in our lives to stay in tune with our true identities, and to stay grounded and relaxed.

When she brings in her harp for private sessions at pediatric hospitals or other settings, it is usually intended for relaxation and meditation. The instrument is especially good at helping put active or agitated babies or children to sleep, says Jessica.

Over the years, she has worked in special education, often using music for speech, behavioral, and emotional regulation goals for school-aged children on the autism spectrum. She has also worked with older adults with Alzheimer’s using music to help elicit memory through music and to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation while being mindful of certain triggers. 

“Since music elicits memory, we each have our own unique memories tied to specific songs. Sometimes they are good memories, other times they are not.” 

Jessica has also worked in the field of music therapy and research, and during her studies, she was placed at McLean Hospital with adults diagnosed with anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and other mood and personality disorders, as part of her music therapy practicum when she was a student at Berklee.

At the Boston Children’s Hospital, Jessica had the opportunity to focus on music therapy and medicine, where she worked on using music for pain management and helping patients reduce their anxiety.

At one point, Jessica also taught instrumental and choral music to elementary school students in the San Gabriel Valley. Her various positions have allowed her to express her creativity and teach different instruments to the students while developing a robust music curriculum where students could learn about music from all around the world. 

“Initially I focused on Latin American music and countries but I later expanded it encompassing music from all over the world from Nigeria to India and beyond. I found that kids were really using music to build their identity, and were asking me to cover music from their roots,” said Jessica. She often focused on this aspect at a Dual Language Immersion Program school where she taught classes in both Spanish and English.

With her background as a music therapist, Jessica knows that music often goes beyond just reading sheet music.

“It is also therapeutic and educational. It can help a child with their identity and shape them into world citizens. I love this part about teaching kids; they can express their genuine curiosity.” 

For Jessica, “Tuning the Soul” means looking inward, and finding a way to reflect and embrace one’s unique gifts. 

Music therapy and music in general, are both needed especially during uncertain times like this “because it can meet us where we are at,” she says.

“We are able to select the type of music that works best for us to validate our feelings and can help move us to a place where we want to be if we desire.” “Often, it is the emotions that we keep inside that throw us off balance. If we express it, we are better able to move forward from it. Music can also provide comfort during these uncertain times.”

From Bachata to Bollywood 

When she’s not performing music or playing the harp, Jessica is often prepping for marathons, or learning the choreography to different dance routines from bachata to Bollywood dance.

Jessica began her dancing journey in 2016, shortly after suffering a bike accident while training for a triathlon. 

“I had to be airlifted to a trauma center and got my face stitched up due to facial lacerations (I completely split my lip open and deep cuts on my chin and nose) and I suffered a concussion which took a long time to heal. Since I was no longer able to train for triathlons, I searched for a new sport that was not as dangerous and I could do while healing and just find a place to start over and make new friends,” said Jessica. 

Growing up, Jessica had always had an interest in dancing. During her recovery period, she wanted to rekindle her childhood love for dance, so she began a new dance journey by taking salsa classes and bachata dance, and then, Bollywood.

“Being Latina, there was always dancing in my home and at family parties. I grew up dancing at home for fun, nothing formal.”

During Jessica’s process of rebuilding herself after her injury, Jessica learned more about the art of both Bollywood and bachata dance and often fused the two dance forms together. She began to practice with peers and found a close-knit dance community that embraced her talents and encouraged her to continue dancing. 

Today, Jessica is a member of Bollywood Step Dance, a Bollywood dance troupe and community-oriented dance organization in Pasadena, CA, that offers beginner and advanced Bollywood dance classes taught by choreographer, Yogen Bhagat.

In many ways, Jessica fused both her love for both Bollywood and Bachata and has focused on her passion for “Bollychata.” She recalls that she had first learned about Bollywood after being introduced to a Bollywood film in 2008.

“I remember loving all the music and dancing! Never did I think I’d actually be dancing Bollywood or playing Bollywood music, but life takes you on a journey,” says Jessica.

What Jessica likes most about Bollywood dance is how therapeutic and freeing it can be. In 2018, after returning from doing a music contract in India, she began to hone in on her Bollywood dance skills by taking more classes with Bollywood Step Dance at the Pasadena Hindu Temple. For many people like Jessica, Bollywood dance has become another way to express herself and connect with an inspiring community of people who love to dance.

“I look forward to going to classes every week. Especially now in quarantine, I look forward to the livestream. I will admit, I felt very out of place when I first started taking classes because I was not Indian and people noted that. Although, over time I have found my place and people have come to love me for who I am,” says Jessica. 

Jessica says her favorite and main styles of dance are currently salsa and bachata.

“Dance is therapeutic for me. I do music as my profession, and I do dance for fun.”

An Advocate for the Arts

Aside from her busy schedule, Jessica also advocates for music and the arts, and has been actively involved in various organizations over the years. She has been on the Board of Directors for various organizations such as The Los Angeles Chapter of the American Harp Society, and Los Angeles Women in Music.

“I have earned a certification in grant writing and nonprofit management and often use my skills in applying for arts related grants or send out grant opportunities to organizations that could benefit from them.”

Jessica admits that it can be challenging to find specific jobs for music therapy, often because positions are not often posted for hire because the position is not always created.

Jessica frequently does guest lectures and seminars about music therapy to schools, hospitals, clinics, and beyond. 

“Advocating is a daily thing and can be done in so many forms from lecturing to how you carry yourself,” says Jessica.

There have been times when Jessica has contemplated continuing her studies in science and the health field, but says that music continues to call her back so she cannot stray too far from it.

Today, when she plays harp, Jessica often adds her own contemporary flair to the classical instrument, by adding a few verses of rap in between and dabbling with Bollywood, too.

“My ultimate goal as a harpist is to inspire. I want to keep myself inspired by striving to always do my best and pushing boundaries with things like rapping and playing harp. I also want to inspire others from other young harpists to the everyday person. I just want to inspire and offer some light into people’s lives through my music and through just being me as a person.” 

For more information about Jessica Brizuela, please visit jessicabrizuela.com

-Written by Monica Luhar, originally for Mornings with Moni.

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