Music heals and unites people. Few have experienced this like composer, guitarist, and instructor Jason Sagebiel.
While a US Marine scout-sniper in Iraq, he became enamored with the richly expressive qualities of Iraqi music and befriended local musicians to study it. During this time, he also sustained a brain injury that would haunt and debilitate him as he tried to rebuild his life when he returned home. When he couldn't get access to proper healthcare, he found he could rehabilitate himself through disciplined practice on the guitar. He tells his fascinating story and passes on the healing through his performances, his stunning compositions, and his innovative approach to teaching guitar.
The Queens, New York-based artist's powerful journey has been the subject of Jon Pieslak's book Sound Targets. He's been featured on the WNYC radio program “SoundCheck” and KUHA radio's “The Front Row.” Sagebiel has performed at esteemed venues such as Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, and Elebash Hall, and at prestigious festivals such as the Princeton Festival, the Van Der Stucken Festival, and the Warebrook New Music Festival. His compositions have been performed across the US by the ALIAS Chamber Ensemble, the Second Instrumental Unit, the Cygnus Ensemble, and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra's String Quartet. Currently, Sagebiel is the conductor and director of the NYC Guitar Orchestra and runs an acclaimed music school in Long Island City in Queens, NY.
Sagebiel's first profound music experience was when he was 13 and contracted a rare disease called Sydenham's Chorea. His parents bought him a guitar and signed him up for lessons to distract him from his illness. His symptoms were so severe he ended up as a test subject for the National Institutes of Health, and his case study is now in several medical journals and texts. He continued to diligently pursue music, eventually earning a Master's Degree in Composition from the Aaron Copland School of Music, CUNY; and a Bachelor's of Music, magna cum laude, from Loyola University New Orleans.
While in college, he enlisted in the Marine Reserves and ended up serving in the Iraqi War. During the war he befriended many local Iraqis and studied the oud with well known Iraqi musician Ali Hussein Jabir. Sagebiel noted the mournful beauty of some of Iraqi's melodic conventions were similar to the snaky phrases of American blues music and was able to absorb the complex musical system. Today, one of Sagebiel's most hauntingly gorgeous compositions, “Missing Kut,” was based on one of these elegantly elegiac music scales. “When I sent it over to my Iraqi friends, they thought it was done by a local musician,” Sagebiel says proudly.
Besides the deeply moving music-as-a-bridge-to-peace symbolism inherent in this work, “Missing Kut” represents Sagebiel's indomitable spirit. He was hit in the head by a brick during a protest while on duty. When he returned home, he noticed he was chronically fatigued, slurring his speech, and having difficulty concentrating. He was soon diagnosed with TBI (Traumatic brain injury) but not able to get the medical attention he needed. “I was passing out two to three times a week. I couldn't hold thoughts, and my cognitive abilities were foggy and slowing down. But, like a lot of things in my life, I just put my head down and worked through it.”
Sagebiel retaught himself guitar, and in the process, regained much of his mental and musical facilities. Through this journey, he became passionate about music education, and developed a holistic approach that encompasses music theory, compositional skills, philosophies on health and wellbeing, self-knowledge, and communal creativity. Now a MTNA Nationally Certified Teacher of Music, he uses this well-rounded curriculum while teaching guitar and oud. “My approach helps people make more progress in less time,” he says.
Currently, he is strong and free from all health ailments. “After working on my own recovery, changing my diet to a whole-foods plant-based diet, I'm healthier than I have ever been,” Sagebiel explains. With a robust schedule of teaching, playing formal concerts of new music and classical music, as well as performing at numerous weddings, corporate events, and other types of parties, Sagebiel is mending souls the way music has mended his throughout his life.