John Gunita’s little-known instrument is a tool for healing
It looks like a UFO and its sound is described as otherworldly. It has built-in harmonics, making every note sound great with the next. Thanks to John Guinta, it’s bringing tranquility to people of all ages, in contexts ranging from yoga studios to hospitals to houses of faith. It’s the handpan, a unique instrument that is relatively new to music and sound therapy. Guinta’s nonprofit, Streams of Sound, is the first to bring handpans to the Jacksonville area, and the ethereal sound is now streaming all over the city.
Currently, Guinta can be found playing the handpan, sometimes along with fellow musicians Stanislov Shaposhnikov and Bruce VanFleet, at Wolfson Children’s Hospital, Baptist Medical Center, UF Health Proton Therapy Institute, Brooks Brain Injury Clubhouse, and in the memory units at Brooks Assisted Living Green House Residences and Bartram Lakes, as well as several local yoga studios and stand-alone “sound bath” events. This career path, described by Guinta as, “the most rewarding work I have ever done,” follows a long and winding approach, through different careers and musical side gigs.
In fact, Guinta’s work history provides unique insight into his sound therapy work. “Before I started on this percussive path I am on, I spent 20 years in the military and federal service as an air traffic controller,” he says. “I therefore consider myself qualified to understand stress and the human condition.” It was after his career as an air traffic controller and an eight-year stint as a fly-fishing guide in the Florida panhandle that Guinta relocated to Jacksonville and worked as a river ferry and ocean rescue boat operator, followed by corporate work with a major logistics company. In 2005 his wife succumbed to a sudden illness which prompted Guinta to undertake a new personal challenge—training for his eventual completion of the entire Appalachian Trail in 2010.
This milestone was followed by training in massage and reflexology, and Guinta ran a San Marco practice for five years. It was during this time that he also participated in gigs as a self-described “hobby percussionist,” playing in a duo called Rhythm Bazaar that performed at belly dance shows in a few local restaurants and as a street act for the Downtown ArtWalk. In 2013 local yoga teacher Brenda Star Walker hosted two handpan players that were traveling through the area and Guinta attended their performance. One of them, Peter Levitov, introduced the instrument to Guinta. “It immediately struck me as very special,” Guinta says.
Guinta acquired his own handpan within a year, the first, he believes, in Jacksonville. He began playing it as a solo artist in yoga studios, eventually traveling the country to play in studios as far north as Hudson Valley, New York to as far west as Phoenix, Arizona and on wellness cruises in the Caribbean. “It was such an unusual and new instrument back then. I felt I had become an ambassador to the handpan movement wherever I went,” he says.
The handpan was invented in Bern, Switzerland in 2000, and according to Guinta, gained a specialized following around the world, particularly among “sound healers.” The instrument itself is made by hand, hammered from sheet steel, and crafted into an orb-like shape with a hollow chamber inside that creates its unique sound. The orb sits atop a stand for playing, and the hand gently taps around the drum near rounded grooves. Guinta has taken lessons from a number of teachers, including Levitov, but says he is mainly self-taught through watching others play. The instrument is relatively simple to begin playing, with its preselected scale and harmonics, which is an empowering feature to learners.