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Bethany Uhler Thompson didn’t know what to expect when she decided to start a youth string orchestra at the Chatham Youth Development Center.
She was inspired by her uncle, who was incarcerated and told her how lonely prison could be. Thompson used to play her cello in a juvenile detention center when she was younger, but she wanted to involve those incarcerated in the music-making community.
This is how Chatham Strings was born.
For about two years, Chatham Strings, an orchestra of donated violins, cellos and viola, has helped incarcerated children explore creativity, teamwork and achievement. COVID-19 stalled the program in 2020, then Thompson graduated and moved to California.
She hopes, however, that the impact has remained.
“There are potential benefits to involvement in music,” Thompson said, “such as recovering from traumatic experiences in life, fostering a positive experience with learning and new experiences, education, and also develop interpersonal skills that are so essential to life.”
Chatham Strings results, which Thompson explored in his thesis for a doctorate in musical arts at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, are all anecdotal and consequential, Thompson said. But some children said their participation in the program helped them try new things, even though they were told they were never going to make it.
“They were discouraged from learning new things, it was part of their past,” Thompson said, “When they were given the opportunity to try something new, and they started to like it, and upon noticing a bit of success, they started going, ‘Oh, why am I limiting myself?’
Perhaps success on the cello could translate into success in beautician school or math class, Thompson said.
transformation through music
Chatham Strings was a look at the transformative powers of music, which studies suggest improve cognitive abilities, health and well-being.
Just 40 miles from Durham-based Chatham Youth Development Center notes for children boasted that participants in its after-school music program for students in low-income areas had higher school attendance rates and better academic performance. The program is based on the El System model originally launched in Venezuela for children in poor neighborhoods to learn music.
More important than the test results, however, is the joy of the music, said shana tuckerexecutive director of Kidznotes.
“It’s not something that sticks around,” Tucker said. “But it’s something we all hope to have experienced – at least once in our life, at least once a week, once a day – but you have to know what it is and recognize it when it comes because let it dissipate.”
Tucker has spoken with countless parents who no longer play an instrument, but they can’t forget the first time they held one, how special it was.
Thompson recalled a similar bow from the children of Chatham Strings, who, even in the midst of an argument with fellow students, put their instruments aside.
But is the music special? What makes it different from other activities?
According to Donald Hodgesprofessor emeritus at the UNCG, there is something unique, but nothing magical about music.
“The elements of all the pieces can probably be found in other things too, for different kids, different individuals,” Hodges said,
Playing music can activate different parts of the brain, Hodges said. For example, when playing the violin, your right hand, which controls the bow, controls the rhythm, while your left hand, which presses the notes on the strings, controls the melody.
After doing this activity over and over again, it creates a permanent imprint on the brain.
This kind of coordination can be found in many activities, Hodges noted. He rejects the idea that music has a mystical, weird quality to it, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something important and uniquely human about making music.
Societies around the world incorporate music into their daily lives, albeit in different ways. Maybe it’s the human in the music that makes it so special.
“Every musical style, if that’s your favorite, whatever it is,” Hodges said, “activates the part of the brain that says, ‘Hey, I’m human and that’s how I feel about my humanity. “”
In recent years, research made possible by new imaging techniques capable of showing what the brain is doing in real time has shown that music definitely has neurological benefits. John Burdette, a researcher at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, found in a 2014 study that simply listening to your favorite music changed the connections between auditory brain areas and the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is “responsible for memory and social emotional consolidation”.
Other research has explored how people with dementia are able to remember music lyricsdespite profound memory loss, and a recent study found that people who started musical training when they were young had stronger structural connections in the auditory regions of their brain.
Heal through music
Thompson taught his students how to compose music in addition to performing, allowing them to express themselves more.
Incarcerated children are more likely to be exposed to aDiverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)defined as potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Research shows that even if children accumulate ACEs such as incarceration or loss of a parent, witnessing violence or having a close relative suffering from mental illness, this puts them at higher risk of low education, substance use, and even physical health issues like cancer in adulthood.
It can be difficult for traumatized people to open up, Hodges said. Music can help.
A student from Chatham Strings has composed a play about the loss of a parent. The orchestra performed this piece, “Motherly Love”.
Encourage reliability and trust in others
Playing music and being part of an ensemble involves coordination and teamwork, but it also requires expression – as an individual and as a group.
“Everyone plays an important role,” Hodges said. “Not everyone can play first either. So it’s a delicate balance.
Tucker said his organization, Kidznotes, strives to create a “community through music.”
“The dynamics of orchestral works are very similar to how you create intentional community outside of the program,” she said.
Members of an orchestra support each other in the same way that they might support their neighbors or family members outside of the orchestra. Just like in life, the orchestra isn’t just about “playing your part,” she said.
At Chatham Strings, Thompson said students quickly realized that if someone missed a class, they wouldn’t sound as good. The students then felt responsible not only for themselves or for Thompson, but for the group itself.
“There’s a sense of responsibility,” Thompson said. “Of course, did that lead them to always make the right decisions? No. Does this suit any of us? But it had an impact on their willingness to be responsible and to be part of it.
The pandemic has affected how both bands experience this community through music.
Kidznotes was forced to go online as schools went online, and for some kids that meant attending their group violin lessons from the McDonald’s parking lot because that’s where it there was Wi-Fi, Tucker said.
For children in school during COVID, life is difficult and unpredictable, Tucker said.
The pandemic has changed the way we experience community through music. But the music still found a way.
As lockdowns began in countries around the world, videos of people playing trumpets or singing from their apartments were circulating on social media.
In the end, it comes down to joy.
This joy that music is so likely to bring is always recoverable despite the world. And that joy, that meaningful experience is something anyone can have, no matter your age, cognitive abilities or numbers, Hodges said.
This originally appeared at North Carolina Health News and is published here in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Exchange.
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