The iron bars are not inviting. In fact, you will not be welcomed unless you are recognized by the voice at the other end of the call box and only then do the gates part for a measured time. You will immediately be on video surveillance.
On my first visit, I was asked to drive to a designated area of the city and then call for further directions. The exact address is not published for safety and privacy reasons. I also had to pass the background check required for all volunteers. Sitting on several acres in a quiet part of the city, this former religious retreat is something of an island, though mere blocks away from an area infested with drug and sex trafficking. This safe and secluded place now plays host to a shelter—a transitional home for women and their children who are victims of sex trafficking or domestic abuse. I became acquainted with the shelter while reading a story in my university alumni magazine, but my motivation for volunteering was personal. My twenty-five-year-old niece was a bright and courageous warrior who worked on behalf of sex trafficking victims with her New York law firm and other agencies. We had recently lost her to melanoma. This was my way of continuing her legacy in some small way—and honestly, a way to work through my own grief.
I contacted the shelter in the article to find out if they were interested in music activities for the residents. My goal was to promote self-esteem and positive artistic experience in a general music class setting. They were very interested. I was told by the director that a children’s camp was held in the summer which provided enrichment activities for the younger residents. As an invited part of the shelter’s camp experience, I scheduled the first visit and music camp.
I had this crazy idea that even though there were tragic stories within this house, that somehow music could help them deal with their pain, escape their memories, or give them an outlet for their expression. I hoped that through the learning and doing of music, or “musicking” (a term coined by Christopher Small in 1998), to create beauty and a sense of hope for these children, in spite of their difficult circumstances.
My background is in public school K-12 and university music teaching, but there was no precedent for teaching music to this special population. I was anxious about my first visit, as I didn’t know how the students would respond.
Driving up, the building exterior is strangely peaceful and comforting. A two-story structure that has weathered the test of time is framed by large, shady trees covering the grounds. I parked in a very secure place with easy access to the door to bring in my instruments. I carried in a large keyboard, several rhythmic instruments, hand drums, eight different xylophones and sheet music for various age groups.
That first visit included a tour of the shelter, which had ample room, tall ceilings, stocked pantries, and spacious communal kitchens and gathering areas. The building had been lovingly cared for and restored. Residents of the retreat are provided culturally-sensitive, structured services to rebuild their lives as independent and self-sufficient members of the work force. Over forty residents live in separate apartments within this building while receiving employment skills and financial training. As residents are from many parts of the world, English classes and other educational opportunities are especially important for supporting a new start. A 24-hour hotline assists victims with varied needs from medical care and counseling to legal services. The volunteers and employees are friendly, competent, and sensitive.
Moms and their children safely stay here for sixty days before they are transitioned to an apartment and a job, most often in another city. In the meantime, the children that come with them are in a sort of limbo. They are not in their old life, but they have not yet begun their new life. These children, too, are in need of regaining their confidence and preparing to live a life of freedom. This is difficult to do, as they are sequestered on the premises with their mothers.
While the mothers are busy attending classes or job interviews, the children (ages 4-17) have a full-time child advocate that schedules field trips, art classes, and outdoor play. Older children often have access to their phones for video games and music. The shelter provides a safe haven to live as they transition to a normal life, with the end goal of mothers supporting their family without fear of the abusive pimp or family member.
After concluding the tour of the facilities, the music class started right away in the sunroom. We introduced ourselves by playing a name game in which students chanted their names and simultaneously learned rhythmic music notation. There were some students who even struggled at first with speaking their names aloud. Their peers would jump in and save them by sharing their names with me. The comfort level increased as we began to build a sense of familiarity and community. I made quick work of learning their names because it is important for every student to feel validated and recognized for their own unique identity.
What sort of magical music would take little eyes and ears off of their stormy pasts and lift their spirits to create expressively on recorders, rhythm instruments, and through singing? For the most part, the repertoire consisted of folk songs, funny songs, or popular songs. Familiarity was our friend. At first some students were too shy to take a rhythm instrument and keep a beat with the melody, but that soon was overcome by a smiling, happy face that watched their peers with joy. I learned that, like most public school classrooms, the students had a diverse background of musical skills. Some were advanced and could read music. Others had very little to no experience with singing or playing instruments, but they patiently encouraged each other.
What struck me as odd was that there was very little vetting by the children. Walls are usually pretty high from students “trying out” a new teacher. It takes a while for students to “let you in” – to trust you with their friendship, their input, and their story. Somehow, they accepted me immediately as someone who was there to make their world better. I think the music spoke loudly of a time and place when their lives were happier and more in control. Several students would say, “I know that song!” “We used to play that in my old music class.” Or, most heart breaking, “I used to play violin on that song, but we had to leave it behind.” Music became the bridge that allowed the students to see that they still had power to make something beautiful.
The students enjoyed playing melodic ostinati on the xylophone or keyboard as we sang. I quickly found that they were happy to lose themselves in the moments of music. They were very receptive and loved the instruments and wanted to touch them. They wanted to participate. The only issues I had were those similar to children of poverty, of not knowing how to share well with others. We worked through those issues. They learned that if they shared their instruments they would all have a turn. We did repeated songs so that all students were able to participate. Equity and access were strong parameters for each class.
The music lesson objectives were based on the Five Music Rights of the International Music Council. My first priority was the care of the child’s mental health above all. Music stopped for any behavioral issue and a peaceful resolution was sought. Students were allowed to choose instruments and to have input on the choice of song repertoire. This gave them a voice in the process and a feeling of empowerment. I called upon bilingual music instructional strategies from my dissertation research, knowing that a variety of learning styles and academic levels would be present. Above all there was a mutual respect that I incorporated in all activities: the value of all people to participate in musicking.
The summer was spent visiting the shelter weekly to teach music in a wide variety of methods to the students. It was never directly explained to me if any of the children had personally been sexually trafficked or abused, but it didn’t matter. They had all been damaged by the exploitation of their family. They had all lost their homes, their security, and their belief in the world as a beautiful place. In my experience of teaching public school domestic abuse and/or sexual abuse victims, I could tell that a few of the students at the shelter showed similar signs. These included social withdrawal, checking out mentally, and various other coping mechanisms, as well as a general attitude of knowing far too much of the dark side of humanity for their ages. While you would probably expect this heaviness to pervade every waking moment, it miraculously did not. They were mostly just like other students: energetic, boisterous, socially outgoing, and—thankfully—resilient.
One factor that was distinctly different from a regular public school music class was that each student seemed hungry to learn about music. They were not required to attend the music camp and could come and go as they pleased. But all of the students present at the shelter eagerly gathered early in the sunroom and looked forward to participating in music making and learning.
One challenging aspect for me was the vast span of ages in our music camp. The ages ranged from 4 to 17 years. As an instructor that usually adheres to a strict lesson plan with distinct objectives and strategies, I learned that it was okay to review more, to skip ahead, or respond to their interest level. I learned that I was just a facilitator. The music was theirs. They owned it. They possessed little else, but they did possess their own ability and right of human expression through music. They championed it through song, chant, rhymes, rhythm instruments, recorders, xylophones, and music learning. They sang out. They played loud. They were heard. They made music bravely.
The older students, all girls, also participated in the music class. We did a lot of beginner songs, but age was not a factor. The older students were very patient and helpful with the younger students. They were just very happy to experience music, no matter what form it took. I was humbled by their kindness to each other. I played a few songs from musical theater and Disney songs that they knew, and they joined me by singing and accompanying on instruments. At the end of our two-hour sessions together, the students were still wanting to play and sing! I mentioned to the older girls that I might be able to teach them private piano lessons when I returned, and they were very excited.
I have taught students that come from difficult backgrounds. You can tell in class that they are a little less patient at times and may need more attention both during instruction as well as performance. One of the harder things to watch was knowing that the students had very little and that is why they want to touch everything, hold it, keep it to themselves, and not share. These are students who may have a musical background, but for whatever reason, they are now deprived. I asked them what they would like for me to do musically during my next visit, and they adamantly stated that they would like to have a karaoke machine with songs they can sing, a microphone, big drums, a bass guitar, and—if I could swing it—a saxophone! They loved music and they wanted to be involved.
The oldest male student that I’ll refer to here as Marcus (I have given pseudonyms to all the students to protect their identities), was by far the most musically advanced student. He had a charismatic personality and was very people wise. Over the summer he morphed from a boy into a young man. His mindset seemed to be less focused on his immediate need for attention and musical showmanship and developed into that of a caring individual who, despite obvious life difficulties, was mindful of others’ needs in the music class. I asked him to assist in the class routinely. This helped develop his leadership skills and he handled it all very maturely. What was so lovely was that you could tell that by the class demeanor and acceptance of Marcus’s modeling of recorder melodies, or his leading of the rhythm band, that they were proud of him as well. They saw his success as their own.
The students developed their rhythmic and melodic knowledge through body percussion, singing, and playing instruments. We experimented with repeated rhythmic and overlapping patterns. They loved the music lesson when we learned about the instruments in the orchestra and I taught them how to conduct in 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 time. Their little arms keeping time with the music, they participated fully with a very high rate of success.
Sometimes longevity in singing was an issue. They didn’t seem to have the stamina or persistence to be able to sing for a long period of time. One or two would not participate for a while, staring blankly at the ceiling. They checked out physically for whatever reason, so I always had several lesson plans prepared which allowed me to quickly switch gears and find something that would engage their minds and creativity. Once they relaxed and used correct breathing, they were able to project more with their singing. I was very careful that song lyrics were positive and uplifting. One favorite song was “Lean on Me.” They sang strongly: “Lean on me, when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on. For, it won’t be long, ‘til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”
Not all days were rosy. When we started one of our classes, Marcus was extremely depressed and said that he was having a bad day. He was not interested in participating. He would barely touch the drum. As the intellectual challenge of the music lesson increased, the more participatory he became. When we got to the recorder portion of the lesson, he was captivated by playing the music and had totally forgotten the reason for his bad mood.
On this same day, Sophia struggled just to function. When she had a hard time processing or understanding, she gave up very easily. This was in great contrast to Anna, a girl who always had excellent questions and shared her past musical experiences, which seemed to be very important to her. There were many varying degrees of musical progress. One beautiful thing is that as I was walking out the door Anna said, “Goodbye! We love you! We can’t wait to see you next time! Bye!” It was very sweet. As a music teacher I felt that I had something to share with the students. I could encourage them to be their own music makers. That was a lasting gift.
For several students, their English was limited and performing music was a welcome way to make them feel a part of the group. To assist with literacy, we incorporated reading and music learning. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears, a West African tale by Verna Aardema, is a wonderful book. The story unfolds a cast of animals whose lives are all disrupted by the actions of one mosquito. Because the mosquito lied, a catastrophic chain of events occurred that ended with the death of a baby owl. The students created rhythmic patterns on percussion instruments to represent the animals in the story. Engrossed as they were, a calm acceptance of the heart of the story was learned. Bad things happen to good people. Cause and effect. Sometimes things happen to us that are out of our control. We go on. We survive. We come together as a community. We lift each other up and find power in facing our fears.
I see it as something similar to the 29,000-year-old cave paintings that were found in Chauvet’s Cave in southern France. Jean Clottes, former archaeology official in the French Ministry of Culture theorizes that these caves and their drawings were places that held transformative power and religious significance. Clottes believes that prehistoric shamans invoked the spirits in their paintings not only to aid them on their hunts, but also for births, illnesses, and other crises and rites of passage. “These animals were full of power, and the paintings are images of power,” he says. “If you get in touch with the spirit, it is not out of idle curiosity. You do it because you need their help” (Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015). So all these many years ago, even then, human expression was a way of reaching out, of making sense of the world.
On the last day of summer music camp, I learned that many of the students had moved to another state or another city. But, as the director told me, they had many new students. It reminded me of the ongoing mission of the shelter and the cycle of its ever changing population. I hoped that the music camp would give our little band of dreamers something good to hang onto in an otherwise dark time of their lives and bring them a lifelong love of music.
At the last class as we wrapped up the recorder lesson, Sophia uncharacteristically needed to talk. A striking contrast to our first class together when words were too hard for her to summon. “Marcus has gone. They moved to Kansas City.” I told her, “I know it is hard and that you miss him. But I am really happy that he will have a new home and a new school. I will pray for him.” She looked at me with somber, knowing eyes and nodded. As I was leaving I received big hugs and goodbyes from everyone. In my effort to bring healing to these students, they had taught me so much. They taught me that music is an innate human expression that helps us make sense of the world. They played. They sang. They created beauty.
It seems that when we as humans are stripped of all we possess, our friendships, our sense of place and community, we tap into the core of our existence. Just as important as our need for shelter, clothes, and food, is our need of artistic expression. Music has a way of engaging our ability to create and strengthen us as humans. It is a part of the fabric of who we are.
After over 30 years of teaching music, I learned something new at the summer music camp: that music is a basic form of human expression and often brings hope to the most marginalized of communities. In these seemingly routine music classes a transformation took place. Students tapped into their own ability to increase their self-esteem. They were in a rite of passage. They created power and enablement from their rhythms, their voices, and their bodies. They needed this music. It was not a trite exercise in mindless busy work. Music making became a survival skill for them. It was their way of participating again in a social and individual way that was positive, creative, and valued. It was their own. They owned little else. They left their homes with nothing and were being transitioned into new lives, perhaps in new cities, with new schools and maybe even new names. It was sung in their little voices that grew stronger each week. It was played in beautiful tones and kind and graceful behavior. They owned it. I was merely a bystander.
The director asked me if I would be able to continue this music camp next summer and of course I said “Yes!”. He then added, “I have your contact information. I won’t let you forget. I will be calling you!”
I won’t forget.
Kathy L. Scherler is Assistant Professor of Music Education at Oklahoma Baptist University and received her Ph.D. at the University of North Texas. Dr. Scherler has presented research at numerous international and national conferences, and remains active as a soprano soloist.