Music for Life

Danielle Dreilinger
July 13, 2010
With Genuine Voices, Berklee students and alumni bring music to youth in state custody.
Berklee music therapy/performance major Oliver Jacobson reviews a loop the Eliot residents created.
Hannah Weaver, a current Berklee music therapy student, is working on writing grants as well as teaching and organizing volunteers.
Berklee student volunteer Natalie Weaver helps keep the music going.
Lessons in Eliot take place in a multipurpose room, with instruments stored in a locker at other times.
Photo By Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

The Eliot Short-Term Treatment Center, part of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, can get a little hectic at dinnertime. On April 30, the hallway teemed with a dozen residents, all teen boys who have been involved with the law. And the musically inclined had an extra reason to rush: Berklee students were there to give lessons.

Oliver Jacobson, Hannah Slater, and Natalie Weaver greeted the boys and unlocked a cabinet in a small room that doubled as a meeting space and library. They pulled out guitars, keyboards, and a djembe. Mike* wandered in and looked at the laptop, which was set to play a loop of mellow music accented by handclaps. The boys had composed the piece the week before. He hung around, a little shy.

"Is this your bass?" Jacobson asked.

It was, in feeling if not in fact. The two sat down, and Jacobson showed Mike a bassline. Mike quickly picked it up. "Yeah, you hear it. Nice," Jacobson said.

Once Mike broke the ice, more youth followed. Peter, a boisterous boy, hung around the laptop for a few minutes before joining Slater at the keyboard. Group care worker David sat down with the acoustic guitar. Jacobson positioned his fingers on the fretboard. Everyone started playing, with Jacobson strumming along on electric guitar.

Without seeming to communicate, the instructors all had the same result in mind. Slowly, the music lines joined up into a song: Ben E. King's "Stand by Me." Jacobson told Mike to solo. He handled it with aplomb.

"Eliot Short-Term Unplugged!" said David.

That's what an evening looks and sounds like with Genuine Voices, which offers at-risk youth a rare chance to unplug from the world.

It's the brainchild of alumna Juri Ify Love, who founded the organization in 2001 as her senior project in professional music. It is now an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Volunteers currently teach music in four Massachusetts programs. Love has also led efforts at other sites, including two Washington state YMCA programs; she is writing a guide to replicate the project at a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles.

Genuine Voices works with about 40 youth per week, powered by volunteers and the occasional grant; a Berklee alumni endowment award, for instance, paid for the djembe at Eliot. There are no full-time staff; Love works several jobs to support the program and is always looking for donors, sponsors, and volunteer grantwriters to help sustain the work.

Two key volunteers are Slater, a seventh-semester music therapy major, and Jacobson, a sixth-semester music therapy/performance major. They are totally dedicated to Genuine Voices. Along with teaching three or four nights per week, they work as program directors, writing assessment forms and grants, finding volunteers, and bringing bands to perform in the facilities. Jacobson raised about $2,700 directly through a benefit concert in his hometown in Colorado. With that, the program was able to purchase new instruments for three sites.

Working with the youth is "really addicting," said Slater at a meeting. In Jacobson's eyes, these youth are starved not only for music but for attention and respect. Their past experiences "bring out their darkness," he said. "You bring out a kid's light."

One Eliot resident had been heavily involved in a gang. "He just found the piano. Really found it," Jacobson said. Now he smiles and makes eye contact, Love said: "He's really, really changed. He's not beating anyone anymore."

Helping that happen is a matter of trying out tactics, stopping, and trying again. These kids are different from the ones music therapy students meet in their required hospital and special education practicums. Fortunately, Jacobson said, "Berklee's curriculum is very much based on improvisation."

That strategy was clear at Eliot. When Peter got tangled up playing keys, Slater started vamping an accompaniment pointing out the black keys. "All those notes you can use to solo," she said. Immediately his experimentation became tuneful. Peter didn't know it, but Slater had created a chord progression in a key where all the black keys sounded good. It's a key principle of music therapy: When students get frustrated, adjust the task so they can succeed.

It works at Eliot because the point of Genuine Voices isn't to create great musicians—it's to teach these youth self-esteem, focus, concentration, and the ability to try something new, with the goal of lowering their overall rate of recidivism in the future.

"I can't speak highly enough of how great it's been," said Jessica Perlman, Eliot clinical director. "It's a safe place for them to be and express themselves." And to expand their horizons: Most of the boys knew nothing about classical music, but when Slater brought in the Berklee Concert Choir before Christmas, the boys eagerly sang along to Bach and carols.

They could even joke about the rules that go along with being in custody. Eliot staff member David, avowedly a beginner at the guitar, teased one resident by referring to the point-based behavior system the youth must follow, pretending to dock him "10 points for disrespect—you're supposed to call me the young, black Eric Clapton!"

Tim, new to Eliot, joined them. "Have you done guitar before?" Jacobson asked. Tim looked down and shook his head. "Can I teach you a little?" Tim nodded, still looking down. Soon he started strumming a single chord. Jacobson cranked the amp and he sounded like a metal god. He added a second chord. Jacobson congratulated him. "It's your first day rocking out!"

As Slater and Jacobson left, they were visibly upset. "I'm gonna miss you," said Mike, who was in his final days at Eliot. If it weren't for Genuine Voices, "I'd still be making music by myself." He recorded a song in GarageBand, he told Jacobson. It was called "I'm at Home, Don't Leave Me."

What comes next for him and the other youth as they reenter their communities? Data are limited, but Love said a young man she taught in 2001 became a teacher at a Boys and Girls Club. Going forward, she wants to work with researchers to track outcomes.

However, Genuine Voices is fighting to create new programs for these youth to grow. On June 19, Love held a fundraiser with several other organizations to establish the Greater Boston Community Center for the Arts: a place downtown for inner-city youth and adults to explore and cultivate their creative abilities safely. Partners include Break the Silence! Foundation, Brookline Community Center for the Arts, Boston Music Conference, Boston Music Coalition, and Diane Purdy's Children's Theatre Workshop.

For the first time in Genuine Voices's nine-year history, some of its participants spoke to the public about their experiences—including one youth who is still serving time. The experience also resulted in a slot for some of the participants at the city's upcoming Green Festival at City Hall Plaza. Four boys are working on creating a positive, inspiring rap song about the environment.

Offering additional support, Berklee's Liberal Arts Department will offer a Genuine Voices service-learning course starting in the spring of 2011, which will both bring new volunteers to the program and allow existing volunteers to gain school credit for their hard work.

As for Mike, he's home now—but not left alone. Berklee alumnus Randy Cloutier donated a bass for him to keep. Mike performed at the June 19 fundraiser, fighting for his own future.

(*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.)