Singing the Self-Esteem Blues

by Julie Thompson

"Adolescence is a difficult time for every child, but for youth who may live in the inner city, have one-parent households, or have poor role models, the risk is one of becoming caught in cycles of poverty and violence," says Katrina Boedeker, an assistant professor of music therapy at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). Boedeker sees youth intervention as an opportunity to "reinforce issues like building self-esteem, making good choices, dealing with peer pressure, and setting life goals." In addition, she envisions prevention as an integral aspect of intervention, in the sense that when young people experience life problems, they require adult guidance and support. Education, a wider range of opportunities, and positive role models can help prevent difficulties associated with poverty, such as poor parenting skills, hopelessness, drug abuse, poorly managed anger, and violence.

Boedeker began her youth intervention work as a teacher/clinician for the IPFW Future Academic Scholars in Training (FAST) program, which provides adolescents who are at risk with opportunities to develop both academic and life skills. In FAST, students work to enhance their knowledge in academic areas such as English, computers, math, and science. They also learn life skills such as stress management and conflict resolution, values clarification, and problem-solving techniques. The FAST mission, Boedeker explains, is to "empower youth who have been identified by their teachers as having college potential, but who may fall through the cracks in the system without additional support."

Boedeker, who continues to work with FAST, adopts a multidisciplinary approach to youth intervention by using music, theater, and art activities both to teach coping and problem-solving skills and to encourage active student participation in overcoming academic and emotional difficulties. Many of the students with whom she works tend to "live lives marked by the instability of their family and socioeconomic environments and may live in an unpredictable and unsafe world," according to Boedeker. Living in such a world may produce shock and hopelessness that, if left unchecked, can result in terminal thinking or emotional paralysis. Music therapy attempts to intervene in such negative thought patterns and to provide troubled adolescents with the facility to deal with the conflicts in their day-to-day lives.

Boedeker organizes each class around a specific topic or issue and then tries to introduce it in a nonthreatening manner. The first activity promotes a sense of group cohesiveness and encourages students to share information about themselves with other classmates. For instance, students might toss a ball around to music, freeze when the music stops, and have the person holding the ball answer a personal question about himself or herself relating to memories, things the student likes about himself or herself, favorite foods, or what he or she values in a friend. The second segment of the class involves a more intense investigation of the issue. Boedeker uses various forms of music, including rap, alternative, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and soul to establish the essence of the day's lesson. Sometimes she uses prerecorded music to spur discussion of the day's topic; at other times students create and perform their own music, create artwork, or engage in drama activites related to the issue. To conclude the session, students are invited to reflect on the day's topic and its application in their lives, and to comment upon each group member's contributions to the session.

Music's effectiveness as a therapeutic approach depends upon the extent to which it allows young people to "explore facets of themselves and other peers in a safe environment," Boedeker says. She notes that music is so integral to youths' everyday lives that they "become involved in the fun aspect of creating, listening to, and moving to the music" and tend not to realize that they are learning methods to help prevent future problems. For instance, one exercise focuses on developing group communication and cohesion. Students play "feelings charades" by drawing words from a basket and then miming the feeling or playing it on an instrument. The lesson encourages students to learn and use feeling words and to describe a time in their lives when they had that feeling and how they dealt with it, thus focusing them on effective coping skills. Activities can also emphasize areas such as trust building, group problem solving, and self-disclosure. As Boedeker notes, the program's success relies upon her rapport with the group and the group's perception of how "fun" the activities are; its success depends also upon healthy group cohesion and effective communication.

"The future charge to scholars regarding youth who are at risk is one of becoming involved in prevention and intervention as role models and advocates," Boedeker asserts. Nontraditional therapeutic interventions such as the one Boedeker practices help scholars remain sensitive to their audiences and to the cultural resources that will help youth lead more positive lives.

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