mental illness

Son of the Wolf

A Q&A Coffee Chat with “Bash” Hirtenstein

By Alaha Husseinzadah, PR Coordinator

Sebastian “Bash” Hirtenstein is a young dancer passionate about animism and Indigenous rights. He has performed with many choreographers and companies such as BoucharDanse, Micheal Cladwell and the Canadian Opera Company. He has also been on stage with many notable musicians including Ariana Grande, Jason Derulo and Bebe Rexha.

Sebastian’s smashing performance at the High Notes Avante (HNA) November 18th 2021 Concert for Mental Health won the hearts of many audience members. His performance is included in HNA’s Concert of Hope on January 24th, 2022.

I joined Sebastian over Vietnamese coffee recently to talk about his performance, his thoughts on mental health, his work with the Indigenous community and charities like HNA.

Alaha: Your performance in the Concert of Hope is called “Son of the Wolf”. Do you want to talk about the title’s significance?

Sebastian: The dance actually references my mother whose name is Ylva Kristina and Ylva means “She Wolf” in Old Norse, the language of my Swedish ancestors. And the song that I danced to Tròdlabùndin was by Faroese singer-songwriter Eivør Pálsdóttir’s. I chose this song because the movement that I embodied aims to connect to an animistic essence; in the dance, I aimed to embody the essence of the wolf.

Alaha: Is there also a mental health element to the dance specifically for the concert?

Sebastian: When we think about this idea of mental health and we think about the different ailments that befall the mind, I think it all comes back to this idea of a mind-body-spirit balance.

I think the connection to our mind-body-spirit existence can begin by connecting to one’s roots; I think that many, many people would have far less issues with their mental health if they found a sense of belonging.

By reconnecting with our roots, we create identities and foundations to build upon. In this quest, it’s a powerful daily practice; to know that I can treat my body by acknowledging and connecting to my spirit.

Alaha: That’s quite insightful. A more general question: this is your second performance for HNA, so how did you hear about and get involved with the mental health charity?

Sebastian: Ingrid [HNA’s founder] and my mother were actually both part of the {Swedish Women’s Educational Association (SWEA)} and I met Ingrid through her. Ingrid and I connected, and I created my first choreographed work for the 2014 High Notes Gala. The piece was “SOON…Decide” an analysis on suicidal thought process, which I found to be a very interesting topic to manifest into movement.

Alaha: Is that part of your mental health story?

Sebastian: Yes, it has been prevalent in my family; my father and my grandfather unfortunately succumbed to it.

Alaha: I’m so sorry to hear that.

Sebastian: Thank you.

I’ve always considered mental health to be something that is very, very important to always discuss, regardless of our upbringing or background.

I find that the acknowledgement of mental health / vulnerability are not particularly encouraged among cisgender and heterosexual males; we’re often told to sweep our mental health issues under the rug.

Alaha: That’s definitely a very prevalent issue and the associated stigma for men can be incredibly toxic. How does dance affect your own mental health and what do you love most about dance?

Sebastian: First and foremost, we move our bodies when we dance. There’s always a guaranteed mood change when moving the body, even if I’m not having the greatest day. I would say that I’ve maintained my mental health because of the state of my body; I’m incredibly blessed to have my instrument.

Any physical practice can benefit the mind; it echoes (again) what I said earlier about our mind-body-spirit balance. They all affect each other in some way, and dance nourishes the body and enlightens our lives. I very much believe that our bodies are our temples.

Alaha: What do you imagine your life would be like if you weren’t a dancer?

Sebastian: Dance and performance have always been a part of my life… I’ve always had an impulse to move, I can’t imagine my life without it. It’s a part of who I am.

Alaha: How did it all start for you? Have you always wanted to be a dancer?

Sebastian: My mother will always tell everyone that I’ve always been performing from a young age. I think I stepped into my first dance class when I was maybe 11 or 12, and the rest is history.

Going from grade school to high school, it was always something that was a part of my life… When I was about 15 or 16, I had my first audition: a theatre production in downtown Toronto at a studio called O.I.P; it was the hottest dance studio in Toronto in the late 2000s.

Dance wasn’t a priority for me until I was about 19. I spent one year at university, but I took more dance classes than I had actual classes.

Eventually, I discussed it with my mom, and I moved to Toronto, waited tables, trained as much as I could… In 2013, I discovered my school: The School of Toronto Dance Theatre. I trained there for three and a half years, 40 hours a week of modern and contemporary dance, and was hired immediately out of graduation… it was an amazing experience.

Alaha: What are your plans for this year in terms of your dance projects?

Sebastian: In January, I will be visiting Lac La Croix First Nation, an Indigenous reserve about 5 hours west of Thunder Bay. I will be teaching dance to Indigenous youth through Outside Looking In, and help them create a dance piece that they will perform in Toronto in May 2022.

Alaha: Do you want to talk a little more about your work with the indigenous community? How did you first get involved with them?

Sebastian: I started working with the community when I first worked with Red Sky Performance around 2017 to 2018.

During the summer of 2019, I auditioned for Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo, a Montreal-based choreographer from the Mohawk nation of Kahnawake; her production is called Sky Dancers, an incredible full-length work commemorating the Mohawk iron workers. I’ve also worked with Santee Smith (who is from Six Nations) on her piece Skén:nen

It has been an incredible journey working with the Indigenous community, and it’s amazing to see how interconnected they are.

Alaha: Any other projects that you feel are worth mentioning?

Sebastian: I’ve worked with choreographers and companies such as the Canadian Opera Company, Anisa Tejpar, Jennifer Nichols, Little Pear Garden Dance Company, Rodney Diverlus, Emilio Collalilo, Kylie Thompson, KasheDance… Of course, there’s also HNA.

It’s great to work with charities like HNA because there are many that are connected to the creative and artistic industries; they help everyday artists. Within not-for-profits, there’s a lot of very important discussions that take place, especially at HNA in regards to things as vital as mental health.

Alaha: That’s some great work you’re doing, Sebastian. I am so excited to see your performance in the Concert of Hope.

Catch Sebastian “Bash” Hirtenstein’s performance virtually this Monday, January 24th 2022 at 8 pm (EST) at the High Notes Avante (HNA) second annual Concert of Hope.

The Concert of Hope also features many other notable artists including singer/songwriter Lily Frost, Grammy award winning singer/songwriter Dan Hill, the Juno-awarded Amici Chamber Ensemble, multiple Native American Music Award nominee Marcia Chum-Gibbons and many others. It is hosted by Luba Goy.

About High Notes Avante

High Notes Avante is a registered charity that uses artistic expression to raise the image of mental illness, inspire, connect and give hope to those touched by mental illness.

We aim to relieve conditions associated with mental illness by offering art productions directed towards reducing loneliness and isolation, and mental illness’ associated stigma.

We also aim to promote mental health by providing information from mental health professionals and testimonials from artists, well-known personalities and others who suffer or have suffered from mental illness.

Freeing the Pieces… with Words and Music


By: MADISON SIEGER, Communications Intern


Jane Haque_Freeing_the_Pieces

Jane Haque never imagined the High Notes Gala for Mental Health would have such a strong impact on her life.

She was in the process of finishing up her memoir, Freeing the Pieces, but went back and rewrote the last chapters after attending the event on May 6.

Jane, who occasionally suffers from depression, has been an alcoholic for most of her life, though many never knew it. “The only person who had a problem with my drinking was me,” she says, and it was when she declared the addiction and stopped drinking alcohol that she experienced a metamorphosis.

Her memoir is the result of this transformation and she credits the High Notes Gala for helping her free a piece of herself.

Her book launch will take place on Wednesday, July 26, 2017, 7:00 pm, at the Richmond Hill Centre for Performing Arts (Plaza Suite). Jane is very generously donating a portion of the proceeds from her book launch to High Notes Avante’s future efforts.

“What I saw at the Gala was very moving,” she recalls. While touched by the audience listening intensely to the speakers and the exquisite performers, what really struck her was Dan Hill.  “His music evoked something deep within me.”

And she began to weep.

“It was overwhelming,” she remembers. “I could have stopped  crying if I had wanted to, but it was like a release.”

The woman sitting next to her smiled and handed her a tissue. She smiled back and thanked her. The gesture made her feel like her emotions—and her mental illness—were okay.

“High Notes Avante is providing avenues for speakers and performers to share their stories with us and help with that cultural shift. The organization is a leader in the field of erasing the stigma and I wanted to give it a little bit of notoriety,” she says. “Taking away the stigma of mental illness will go a long way towards mental health.”

Jane 2017 book headshot

Although doctors told Jane she was depressed, she never admitted it. “I hid it, thinking I couldn’t talk about it. Family and friends didn’t even know of my diagnosis.”

Looking back at her story after the Gala, Jane was reminded of her childhood. As a young girl, she had to be asked to smile in photographs and her parents conditioned her to grin at the right moments. The treatment she received for her depression was the same kind of “performance management”—it was as if she was taught to control her sadness like her parents taught her to control her smile.

She realized that her parents, and largely the culture at the time, just didn’t understand. “They didn’t have the right words,” she says. “There was no such thing as ‘depression.’ There was no such thing as ‘childhood mental illness.’”

“People may see when you have a broken arm; but they don’t always want you to talk about it. But they definitely don’t want you to say you have depression,” she states. “When they can see you have a cast, they want to sign it and wish you well—you’re like a hero. But what do they say when someone has a mental illness? They’re speechless.”

Jane says, “It’s time to have the culture shift from one of stigma to one that is honest, upfront and truthful about something that affects so many people.”

From writing her story, she has learned to free herself and wants to help other people free themselves too. “Everyone has a unique story. And many of those stories may come from trauma and sadness and hurt. We can grow from our personal experiences, and by sharing them, others can grow from our experiences too.”

“This is exactly what we strive for,” says Ingrid Taheri, Artistic & Executive Director of High Notes Avante. “We are very grateful for our small role in helping Jane free a piece of herself. Her story touches my heart. And… her financial support will help us continue to spread the message that people with mental illness are wonderful people who deserve the same compassion as those affected by other health issues.”


ABOUT HIGH NOTES AVANTEHigh Notes Avante Productions Inc. is a charitable organization that uses the power of words and music to educate and humanize mental illness. Our ‘TedTalk and Grammy-inspired’ events strive to elevate the image of mental illness and make our audience feel they belong and matter. We aim to erase stigma, give hope and connect with available resources. Perhaps we can start the recovery and healing process with an inspiring evening of music and storytelling. If one in five are affected, we all have a story.

Humanizing Composers and Mental Illness

Humanizing Composers and Mental Illness

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Did the fact that Beethoven insisted on using 60 beans—not 59 and not 61—to make coffee mean he had OCD? Did Tchaikowsky die by choice or by accident? And Schumann? Would he have left heaps more wonderful music if he had lived today and been diagnosed as bipolar and received proper treatment rather than spending his last years in an asylum?

Those are some of the questions that musician, journalist and internationally bestselling author David Barber may address as he speaks at the May 6th High Notes Gala for Mental Health at the Flato Markham Theatre.

Barber’s many books—including Bach, Beethoven and the Boys with over 150,000 copies sold internationally over the last 25 years—were written because he wanted to humanize the composers he studied at Queen’s University.

“We studied the historical significant dates and technicalities of the composers and their music but I was interested in the stories behind them… what made them approachable.  Not only were they writing this wonderful music—in the background they dealt with many of the issues we all are dealing with— illness, love, marriage breakups and financial struggles, “ he says. “Beethoven was embarrassed and depressed as he lost his hearing.”

“Composers and musicians always want to better themselves from their last composition or performance and as a result deal with stress, pressure and anxiety,” says Barber.  “But artists are also lucky that they have a way of expressing how they feel through the music and that can be therapy in itself,” says Barber who attends choir practice once a week, whether motivated to go or not. “Once I am there, my mood lifts and it is a real pick-me-upper. Performing a piece of music with emotional content helps you work through your own emotions.”

Although he considers himself a generally balanced and mentally stable human being, Barber’s life hasn’t been immune to mental illness.

“We have all been touched by mental illness and I have as well. Although people close to me have stories to tell, they are really not my stories to tell. But it has affected me and that is why I have been so interested and supportive of the High Notes Avante events.”

People in Barber’s life suffered from addiction, bipolar disorder as well as post-traumatic stress. Proof that although statistics say at least 1 in 5 are suffering from a mental illness at any time—we are all affected.

“I often felt guilty and still feel guilty that I haven’t been able to do more to help these people, although I’ve tried.  Taking advantage of my counseling benefits at work, and participating in support groups has helped me move forward. It helps to know that you are not alone and that others have been through something similar,” he says.

So why don’t we share our stories and talk more?

“With other diseases and injuries we know we didn’t bring it on ourselves. But with mental illness there is a false perception that people have brought it on themselves,” says Barber. “I am guilty myself. Even if I have moments when I have felt a little depressed and antsy… I personally can make myself feel better and snap out of it by going to see a funny movie or something like that,” he says. “People tend to think if we who are “normal” can snap out of it so can they.”

We don’t understand the depth and seriousness of real anxiety or fear.

“If you break your arm it is obvious that you need to go to the doctor and get a cast. The medical professionals may say you were clumsy and should have been more careful but they do not blame you for breaking your arm,” he says. “When you are really depressed—I mean Capital D depressed—it is the same. It is not your fault. I have to keep reminding myself (and I’m pretty sympathetic) that mental illnesses are just that, illnesses. Just as with a broken arm, they need care and time to heal.”

ABOUT THE HIGH NOTES GALA: You can hear David Barber speak at the High Notes Gala for Mental Health on May 6th at the Flato Markham Theatre. Dan Hill is the headlining performer and speaker. Comedienne Luba Goy will host the evening. Members of Ballet Jorgen, Grammy nominated flutist Ron Korb, pianist Robert Kortgaard, Mental Health Recovery Expert Bill MacPhee and Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist Adam Enchin, will join them. Mental health support organizations will display in the lobby. For tickets call 905.305.SHOW or visit

ABOUT HIGH NOTES AVANTE: High Notes Avante Productions Inc. is a non-profit organization using the power of words and music to educate and humanize mental illness. We strive to erase stigma and hope those attending our events will understand mental illness better while perhaps also starting the recovery and healing process with an inspiring evening of music and storytelling.

ABOUT DAVID BARBER: David W. Barber grew up in Ottawa and graduated with a music degree from Queen’s University, Kingston. He has been a writer, critic, copyeditor and editor in various capacities at the Kingston Whig-Standard, the Globe & Mail (Toronto) and the National Post (Toronto).

As a composer, he has written two symphonies, a Requiem mass, a mass for choir and jazz quartet based on the music of Dave Brubeck, numerous short chamber and choral works and various vocal-jazz arrangements. He continues to sing, with the Toronto Chamber Choir, with a small chamber choir called Cantores Fabularum and with various other Toronto choirs on occasion.

He is the author and editor of more than a dozen books of musical humour and literature, including Bach, Beethoven and the BoysWhen the Fat Lady Sings and If It Ain’t Baroque. His varied career has also included brief stints as a roadie for Pope John Paul II, a department-store Santa Claus, a Kissing Bandit, a publicist for Prince Ranier of Monaco and (with his band Barber & The Sevilles) a backup singer for Avril Lavigne.


Dan Hill’s voice added to mental health movement




Dan Hill’s voice added to mental health movement

“Music has a way of breaking down people’s offences and capturing their heart faster than just about anything else,” says Grammy-awarded singer-songwriter Dan Hill. ”A message sent through music will get through a lot quicker than words alone.”

The artist behind such hits as “Sometimes When We Touch” and “Can’t We Try” hopes his voice will impact those touched by mental illness as he shares his own experience in song and words at the May 6th High Notes Gala for Mental Health.

“We have a moral obligation to reach out and help people that are suffering from mental health issues. We shouldn’t deny or sweep mental health issues under the rug but accept their challenges and confront them full on and deal with them as honestly as possibly,” he says.

“Mental illness has played a huge role in my own life… It is a part of me,” he says as we talk in his Toronto home after most recently performing in Florida.

Dan’s mother, Donna, was diagnosed as manic-depressive when he was ten. “It was traumatic to have her taken away to the hospital,” he says, “not knowing if and when she would return.” During the two months she was hospitalized, Dan, sister Karen and brother Lawrence, wrote her letters every day. Through it all, his Dad, human right specialist Daniel G. Hill, remained loyal and supportive. His mom had another breakdown, when Dan was in his mid-twenties.

He experienced the power of music when he sang for her in the piano room during hospital visits. “The other psychiatric patients would come into the room and sing along. I could feel the healing as it was happening. There is something very primal and physical about singing and music. It is incredible soothing, relaxes the brain and increases production of feel good emotions and endorphins.”

According to statistics from the Canadian Mental Health Association one in five Canadians live with mental illness every year but only about a third are willing to talk about their own mental health, due to stigma. Dan says he wasn’t ashamed about mental illness when it came to his mom, his aunts and his sister who also went in and out of institutions every couple of years after first being diagnosed as bipolar at 29.

Then, two and a half years ago his sister Karen died a tragic accidental death.

“The trauma of my sister dying made me flip out over the edge. I had a bit of a breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric hospital and that was when I was finally diagnosed as bipolar myself.”

“I know it is not healthy to feel ashamed but nevertheless I felt ashamed when I was diagnosed. I felt ashamed for the behaviour I exhibited when I was manic. I felt I had this glaring weakness,” he says. “I’ve worked very hard to come to terms with this over the last two years, so my shame has lessened.”

“Not talking about mental illness is a bigger problem than the illness itself,”

he says now as he plans to write a book about the experience. “I was in denial most of my life and several psychiatrists missed the diagnosis blaming it on the normal quirkiness of a musician. I went undiagnosed for 40 years.“

Dan hopes he can help others and get them talking and paying attention.

“Many people look at mental illness as a sort of laziness or vanity because you are not displaying any physical differences.  They don’t see it or understand it. They think because you look normal that your behaviour or challenge of mental illness is a weakness of character flaw and don’t accept it as being an actual illness, which of course it is.”

“We have an imperative to be compassionate and empathetic human beings. We are all connected through our humanity. We all have different challenges. If we accept certain other challenges then it is natural that we should be able to accept the challenges of mental health,” he says. “The more loving and supportive we are of the person suffering the better the chances of the person healing,” says Dan who will perform several Valentine’s concerts in the Philippines before headlining at the Flato Markham Theatre in May.

Dan Hill will sing and speak about his experience at the High Notes Gala for Mental Health on May 6th at the Flato Markham Theatre. He will be joined by Comedian Luba Goy, members of Ballet Jorgen, Grammy nominated flutist Ron Korb, pianist Robert Kortgaard, author David Barber, mental health recovery expert Bill MacPhee and Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist Adam Enchin. Mental health support organizations will be displaying in the lobby. For tickets call 905.305.SHOW or visit the Flato Markham Theatre website.