Being a mindful parent of teenagers can be a challenge these days. Reports say younger children are now subject to some of the same academic and social pressures as their high school counterparts. In recent months, our local community has grieved a number of teen and young adult deaths linked to depression and anxiety, and it’s a serious concern for the future. What role, I wondered, can music play in improving the social lives and emotional health of our children?
Experts say it’s increasingly important for adolescents to have adults in their lives that they trust and can turn to when life tosses them a curve ball. Many of the private lesson teachers I spoke with commented on this trend. They said that if one of their students is stressed out or upset with a friend, they will often hear about it during their weekly lessons. It is especially true of long-term students with whom they have formed a friendship and mentorship.
When I look back at our daughter’s experience, having the same piano teacher for the past nine years has been invaluable. She turned to her piano teacher for counsel when playing two instruments plus sports started to feel overwhelming. A few years later when the classical piano music got more difficult and started taking too much time to master, she was comfortable asking her teacher to find a more manageable repertoire. There were a few times in middle school when our daughter showed up for lessons and didn’t even play music. Their connection runs deep. This relationship is special. Even though my husband and I were there to support her, it was important for Ellie to have someone else to confide in.
As I learned talking to local students, while some kids figure out early on they want to be soloists, for many it’s about being part of a group. Ensemble playing can extend a kid’s interest in the pursuit of music and adds an important social component that kids really like as they hit adolescence. They feel they belong and that they are making a statement together.
When our daughter was in 7th grade, she signed up for a Creative Composers Ensemble, and for the first time played some arrangements of popular music on the piano. A light bulb went off, and she asked a few friends to form a band. They started rehearsing popular music (in our living room, of course), got invited to play a few paid gigs, and a year later participated in Battle of the Bands at The Neutral Zone last spring.
Right around that time, she was asked to play piano accompaniment for a song written by high schooler recording her first CD at The Neutral Zone. It was a thrill for Ellie to be part of this collaborative recording effort. She started playing the CD everywhere and quickly memorized the rich lyrics. Then just a few weeks later, in May, our neighbor (another high school freshman) took his life. In the aftermath of this event, it was Kaye Hoff’s CD — her original music — The Stuff in My Head — compassionate songs about common teen identity struggles and upbeat tunes reminding us to let our worries go — that provided solace to our daughter and to all of us during the days and weeks that followed. Ellie recalls crying on her horn teacher’s shoulder during a lesson she had scheduled the day after the tragedy occurred.
Music can offer solace at times when words fail. It is a healthy alternative to social media for teens seeking ways to express themselves. The timing of Kaye’s CD release brought this home for me. Teens have the power to heal each other through the music they create together.
Music is always there for teens, and it doesn’t fight back. Several students interviewed said there were many times when they would come home after a rough day at school and pick up their instrument and play a familiar melody to help them unwind or process their frustrations. For our daughter, it was her way of letting off steam, and bringing herself back into equilibrium.
I have come away from this inquiry with a much deeper appreciation for the wisdom of the teenagers in our midst. Their powerful voices are ones we need to hear more often. Music, of course, is just one path of self expression. When they sing and perform, recite poetry or act on stage, we are witnessing healing in action. As a parent who isn’t particularly musically inclined, I am grateful for the band directors and the teachers who dedicate their lives to making this creative art come alive in our kids. Teachers collaborating with each other sets an example for the youth they teach.
My advice to parents of younger children with an interest in music is that you keep an open mind. Support their musical exploration and help them figure out which of the many different pathways works for all of you. The discipline it requires is a good life skill regardless of whether they continue, but it also is an avenue for creativity. As we discovered, you never know where the exposure to music will lead.
To all readers, consider making time to attend concerts and performances by the artists that come to town as a result of the the outreach efforts of organizations like UMS, Kerrytown Concert House, and The Ark. Show your kids that Ann Arbor is so much more than a football town.
Kendra Theriot is a parent of two teenagers and has lived in Ann Arbor since 2006. Her professional background includes 16 years in the investment industry and 5 years at an innovation consulting firm in Ann Arbor. Her passions include exploring Detroit, mountain biking, and yoga.