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Music class helps foster youth find their voice

Sep 28, 2016

The girls who live on the Vista Maria campus in Dearborn Heights have all experienced some kind of serious abuse or neglect. Some are the victims of human trafficking, all are in the foster care system. They come to Vista Maria to work through the trauma and heal.

One way 17-year old Ashleigh works through the pain is by journaling. She brandishes her notebook as evidence, each paged filled with strong, deliberate pen strokes in blue ink. She mostly writes poems (for her eyes only), and has never put them to music. She prefers to sing songs written by other people. Demi Lovato's song "Skyscraper"  is her all-time favorite, says it captures her own journey perfectly.

But this week at Vista Maria, she's in a music class where Demi Lovato, Beyonce and Drake aren't allowed. Instead, Ashleigh and the ten other girls in her workshop are tasked with writing lyrics for their own songs and putting them to music with the help of one of three professional musicians on hand.

At first, Ashleigh's not that into it. She says Lovato's song says everything already, why does she need to write her own? But three days into the workshop, she has a change of heart. Putting her poems to music makes her feel good. "Like I am going to be something," she says. "And I can express my feelings in an appropriate way instead of blowing up and being negative and tearing stuff up."

That's exactly the kind of thing Mike Ball wants to hear. He's the founder of the nonprofit Lost Voices and has been offering these kinds of songwriting workshops for at-risk youth for the past nine years -- first with incarcerated youth, and now with young women in foster care.

"I can express my feelings in an appropriate way instead of blowing up and being negative and tearing stuff up."

"We let them use music to explore their own feelings and free their souls," says Ball.

The Lost Voices workshops are funded by a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council. This particular workshop at Vista Maria runs for five days - two hours of rehearsal a day, Monday through Friday - with a big performance on the last day.

So what do you get when you put a bunch of teenagers who mostly listen to rap and hip hop in a room with three musicians who play folk music on guitars, banjos and harmonicas? "Well the first day is absolute pandemonium" he explains. "We have girls who say, 'I ain’t gonna be here, don’t want to be here, don’t want to do it.'" But by Wednesday, most of the girls seem to have let their guards down, and all but one are working on a song.

"I think what happens is you unleash feelings, you give them permission to feel things and honor their own feelings," says Ball, "it's transformative."

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Ann Arbor-based musician Annie Capps helps 14-year old Myranda put one of her poems to music. The end result is a catchy, sunny tune that sticks in your head. Myranda says she actually  hates writing, so she’s pretty surprised that two days into the workshop she’s already written two poems. "Yeah, they just came out of my mind." She says it felt "really weird" to put her thoughts down in a notebook, but she felt a strong sense of relief after she did.

"I think what happens is you unleash feelings, you give them permission to feel things and honor their own feelings."

But not everyone shares Myranda and Ashleigh's enthusiasm. Tia, 16, says she'd prefer to just write poems and be done with it. "It's a good class  for people who write songs, but I don't. I don’t want to sing my poems."

Singer-songwriter Kitty Donohoe says that's not necessarily uncommon. She's been working with Lost Voices since its inception, and says the youth who participate run the gamut from "very eloquent" to taciturn. "It's a matter of trying to match their personality and what their words are telling me with a melody, beat and vibe."

No one is forced to perform their songs at the final performance on Friday, but Mike Ball says most do. That Friday concert comes faster than most of the young women in the class would like, because now they have to sing their song out loud in front of their peers at Vista Maria and their social workers and therapists.

Picture twenty or so teenage girls, sitting on chairs, facing the audience, each one more terrified than the last. But one by one they make their way to the microphone and ... sing! Some in time to the music, others preferring more of a spoken-word approach. Even Tia who swore earlier in the week that she wasn't going to put her poem to music and sing, walks to the mic in her sleeveless, dark red party dress and proceeds to sing one of the most haunting songs of the evening.

"It was a good experience," she says after her performance. "I encourage other girls, instead of doing bad stuff, get themselves into something that'll help them."

"Did this help you, I ask?

"Yeah, it did," she says. "I needed someone to listen to me. I probably would've blew up, but [the class] calmed me down."

Another young woman in the class, Sabrina, tells me before the show starts that she's only 30 percent sure she'll actually get up and sing. But when her name is called, the 18-year old stands up and makes her way to the microphone with her arms folded tightly against her chest, eyes narrowed. It’s pretty clear: this is the last place she wants to be.

Musician Annie Capp vamps on the guitar for a while so Sabrina can work up the courage to sing. But she can’t do it and runs out of the room, tears streaming down her face. A minute later, she comes back.

And what happens next is remarkable.

The girls in the audience, many of whom have probably experienced the same kind of trauma as Sabrina, they start to sing her words back to her in encouragement, and eventually she finds her voice and sings:

Where were you mama, when I needed you?

All the hurt that he put me through.

Where is your love and hugs when I need them

Why did you leave at the time you left

Where were you mama

How do you expect me to do this on my own

My heart is so broke and I feel all alone

At the end of the show, Sabrina looks a bit shell-shocked, but also relieved. She says she’s glad she got the words out that she wanted to say to her mom. Hopefully now the healing can begin.