Last spring, I had the unique opportunity to be part of a pilot program for youth in the foster care system. The program brought together over 30 teenagers who currently live in group homes because of issues that arose in their foster care settings. Having previously led vocal workshops with teenagers in foster care several years ago, I was recommended to be one of the therapists for the program. Not only is this a population that greatly needs as much support as possible, I saw it as a great opportunity to take a break from the early childhood world and flex my music therapy muscles in a different ways. And it sure was a challenge! So several months later I finally decided to write a blog entry and depart from my usual stories of early childhood music therapy.
Once a week for nine weeks. I saw three groups of youth, one group of older boys ages 16-18, one group of older girls ages 16-18, and one group of boys and girls ages 11-5. We ranged from 5-12 teens in each group every week.
My main goals for my groups were as follows:
- To promote self-expression by providing a safe space that encourages creativity
- To develop coping skills for frustrating situations in a group or social setting
- To increase self-confidence and self-esteem through encouragement of group participation and the creative process
I tried to help the teens accomplish these goals through:
- Drum circles
- Lyric substitution
- iPad instrumental track creation
- Recording created works
- Individual and group lyric writing
- Performance opportunity
With all the groups, I started off with drum circles for the first couple of weeks, to allow them to get comfortable making music with each other and with me. While the group was advertised to the youth as a songwriting group, songwriting can be extremely nerve-wracking and make everyone feel vulnerable so it was important to me to start off with instrumental interventions. Each session, everyone got the chance to choose a beat and lead the group, also choosing when the drumming should stop. This allowed each person to add their own piece of creativity to the drumming as well as give each person the opportunity to be heard and respected as a leader.
After a couple of weeks, one of the older girls mentioned that she had been singing “Lean On Me” in her choir at school, so I decided to use that song as our first foray into songwriting. For each group, I wrote the lyrics up on the whiteboard and then erased some and had the group add in new lyrics. The youngest group came up with very literal and predictable lyrics, sticking with the structure and general sense of the song. The older girls quickly decided to make it their own and completely rewrote the verses not only lyrically but also rhythmically, turning the verses into a rap but keeping the chorus with the original melody.
This led us to more freestyle writing. The older girls were certainly the most passionate about this and dove right in. One of them suggested using “Mmm” (see video below) as the background instrumental track for their songwriting, and as a group they decided on the theme of “Newark, NJ” as the topic for the songwriting, in order to give the girls direction and a sense of commonality. Since all of them had lived in Newark at some time in their lives, they decided that would be a good focus for the song.
For the next two sessions, I was astounded and amazing at the creativity and drive from the girls. They each decided to write a few verses on their own and then shared them with a group. Their words were authentic and honest and showed their vulnerability in a way that they had not expressed themselves yet in the group. We went on to record their words and presented the recordings at the final sharing at the end of the nine weeks. I loved seeing them so passionate about their writing. One girl even mentioned that she used to write her own lyrics all the time but had stopped. After receiving encouragement and compliments from the others in the group about her writing, she said that she planned to continue writing on her own as a way to deal with her situation and express herself. That was one of those magical moments that we, music therapists/teachers/mentors, will always cherish – that moment when we witness someone in our care learning about themselves and realizing their potential.
Now back at my preschool setting, I watched toddlers grow and develop in enormous ways as they just grow so quickly! With teenagers, it was a slower, more vulnerable process, and in my case, a very short one. Nine weeks just got us enough time to trust each other and to start to gain respect for the creative process. But what I’ve learned, and been reminded of over and over again, is how both toddler and teenagers both need to feel that they are in control. Neither group likes to be bossed around and when you offer them a choice, they are much more receptive than if you simply tell them what to do. For toddlers, that might be as simple as choosing to sing ABCs versus Twinkle Twinkle. For teenagers, allowing them to choose their genre of music allows them to feel heard and validated. Both groups still want structure and guidance but they just don’t want to be forced into it. But in order to gain their trust, you have to show that you respect their choices as well.