Music Therapy Helps Youth Better Understand Themselves

Music Therapy Helps Youth Better Understand Themselves

After a brief warm-up exercise, Music Therapist Janna Cochran leads three young women through a discussion of the lyrics of "My Power," a song by Billie Eilish. The conversation quickly moves from the three ladies interpreting the lyrics to talking about their life experiences and how they relate to what Eilish is saying in her song. The girls, like most of us, layered their personal experiences onto an evocative piece of music and lyrics. 

Music therapy is part of the Expressive Therapy Program at our Ozanam and Gillis Campuses, which also includes movement therapy and art therapy. The three facets of the program give the youth a choice in following their artistic interests. It also provides therapists insight while creatively offering the youth an outlet for their emotions. 

This is the second time this group worked with the lyrics and music of Billie Eilish, a multiple Grammy Award winner who won't turn 20 years old until December. A few weeks earlier, Janna and the young ladies worked with a song called "My Future," in which they rewrote the lyrics to share what they saw as their future. 

"We wanted to create a discussion about what they have power over," Janna says. "Many of our kids don't have much power in their lives. We wanted to discuss what power they have in the future and what power they have right now."

Music therapy is a career shift for Janna, who began her career as an advertising media buyer. She played piano and sang in her church choir, and she saw how music could help people make changes in their lives.

"I can share music, which is something I love, and bring people joy," Janna confides. "Music brings out so many emotions and memories for people."

For Janna and CharCarol Fisher, the program manager for expressive arts on the Ozanam Campus, the goal is to use expressive therapy to develop social skills, not necessarily artistic skills. Expressive therapy can highlight gaps in a child's development and help them work toward achieving a social or emotional goal. Giving the youth choices and seeing what they gravitate towards can be beneficial in guiding their development. In music therapy, music is a tool to help them better understand themselves.

"In about six weeks, they are playing a few songs, and some of them have written three or four songs," CharCarol explains. "We encourage them to check out a guitar, take it to their dorm room, and put on their headphones and jam."

Expressive therapy has long-term goals, but it also helps these young adults manage their lives one day at a time. Recently, a student came into a session bringing emotions from a difficult conversation with his mother. Team members provided him with an individual music therapy session and had him work through his feelings in a song. By the end of the session, his mood had changed, and he became more relaxed.

"Noticing small wins is huge," Janna admits. "It's not a matter of being good enough to play at Carnegie Hall. The clients can use music as a means of expression."

That's not to say that some of the music therapy youth aren't prolific. Thanks to donations, the Ozanam Campus music studio includes not only instruments, but a sound mixer and portable vocal booths. The children learn how to produce music on computers using Garage Band and Logic Pro software. Some of them have produced albums of their work, and the group celebrates with a CD release party. 

CharCarol has overseen the expressive therapy program since 2017, which includes managing a growing internship program and the introduction of movement therapy last year. CharCarol sees expressive therapy potentially expanding into our Pathways Transitional Living Program with a therapist who works with young adults as they transition out of the foster care system. These therapists could work with the choices that young adults face.

"Therapy is not an overnight solution," Janna says. "It is a long-term process, but expressive therapy shows that therapists have other tools than sitting in a room, asking questions and talking. Art enables the youth to remove filters and lets them open up."

"We just meet them where they are with the music," CharCarol shares.

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