GCU alum gives voice to taming Tourette Syndrome
Story by Karen Fernau
Photos by Laurie Merrill
GCU News Bureau
When Jennifer Smestad sings, she hopes the message of her lyrics matches the strength of her voice.
That message: Music heals. The 23-year-old Gilbert singer stands as testament to its truth.
Smestad, who graduated from Grand Canyon University in 2015 with a communications degree, was diagnosed at age 10 with Tourette Syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary movements and sounds.
She sang to tame uncontrollable neck ticks. She sang to calm obsessive hand washing. She sang to push through the paralyzing anxiety that made her dread school. She sang her speech as a candidate for Chandler High School’s student council — and won.
Today, the 2013 Miss Arizona sings to help others overcome their own challenges.
“I want to share with others the healing power of music,” she said.
Her first single — “It’s Only Rain,” recently recorded at the invitation of GCU President Brian Mueller in the campus studio — does just that.
In a voice that is both trumpet and flute, strong and calming, she sings, “Whatever this world wants to throw our way, it’s only rain.”
There’s no trace left of the child who feared being ridiculed and avoided talking to others. Smestad now thrives on singing in front of a packed house.
Along with music, she credits her parents, Gary and Brenda Smestad, for what she calls “her cure.” They encouraged her singing, soothed her fears and refused to accept the neurological disorder as a life sentence.
They researched treatments and chose acupuncture, an ancient Chinese treatment to balance the flow of energy through the body, over brain surgery.
Smestad is unable to explain exactly why or how, but she can say with certainty, “The acupuncture worked.”
According to Brenda Smestad, her daughter began belting out songs at 3 years old. She and her older sister often fought over their favorite toy — a microphone.
“I’m glad Jennifer is using song, something that helped her so much, to inspire others,” she said.
For her first single, Smestad co-wrote the music and lyrics with Trent Willmon, a Memphis-based singer and songwriter.
Chris Bandusty, a bandmate in Hillbilly Deluxe and fellow musician at Sun Valley Community Church in Gilbert, plays backup guitar. The record’s producers are Eric Johnson, GCU recording studio manager, and John McJunkin, the studio engineer.
Smestad, who won the talent segment of the Miss Arizona competition with her singing, is devoting all her time to music and helping others with Tourette.
It was during her reign as Miss Arizona that Smestad first talked publicly about her struggles with the neurological disease and the obsessive-compulsive behavior it triggered. She talked of writing and obsessively erasing sentences in her schoolwork. She talked of being so anxious about school that she would cry herself to sleep.
Along with giving others with Tourette hope, she said, her goal is to raise awareness of the disorder. The hallmark signs of Tourette are tics or sudden, intermittent sounds. They range from mild to severe and, for many like Smestad, make it difficult to function daily.
“Tourette is different for different people, but I’ve talked to people who have reached out to me and we share the same pain,” she said.
“It’s Only Rain” is expected to hit the airwaves this fall. Smestad plans to release her first album within a year. Her goal is to become a country western star on par with her idols — LeAnn Rimes, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood.
Smestad knows it will be a difficult journey, a longshot.
But so was taming Tourette.
Contact Karen Fernau at (602) 639-8344 or firstname.lastname@example.org.