Making Music to Make Healthy Minds

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Making Music to Make Healthy Minds

Dalouge Smith, CEO, The Lewis Prize for Music; Board Member, El Sistema USA

Editors’ Note: We commissioned this editorial article before the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, U.S.A. occurred. We share the article with you now with an intensified sense of the deeply traumatic times in which our students live, learn, and try to thrive. We all carry in our hearts the sad conviction that childhood and adolescence should not be so hard—so beset with anxiety, disorientation, and distress. But as this editorial points out, the work we do can make a real difference for our students. As José Antonio Abreu said, “By playing together, children create a different reality for themselves.”


“For generations and years, our communities have been healed by music. Music is a medicine for many, many cultures and now more than ever do we need it, especially for our youth.” – Shacoi, youth leader, We Are Culture Creators

Dalouge Smith.

It’s June. In the Northern Hemisphere, summer is arriving and the school year is ending. In the Southern Hemisphere, young people are in the midst of their first semester. Either way, this should be a time of optimism and excitement for young people. It should be a time for creating unique memories and friendships, or for robust learning experiences—a time of individual and social affirmation.

Instead, for young people across the world, life is coming to consist of a series of disorienting transitions punctuated by trauma. There have simply been too many starts and stops, too many hours of social distancing, too many people sick and dying, and too many acts of violence for any of us to feel fully stable. And the combined forces of destabilization—COVID’s erratic disruption of our lives, the prevalence of violence, and the ongoing struggle to overcome racism and homophobia—are taking their greatest toll on young people.

In October of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association jointly declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. This declaration highlighted the fact that that mental health concerns and rates of suicide for young people between the ages of 10-24 grew substantially between 2010 and 2018 and accelerated during the pandemic. In March 2022, a report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stated that 37% of surveyed high schoolers had experienced poor mental health since the start of COVID and 44% had felt persistently sad or hopeless in the prior year. Both reports emphasize that these rates are even higher for LGBTQ+ youth, girls, and those experiencing racism.

Young people experiencing these hardships are all around us. They are putting their challenges and their hopes into their music, and they are calling us to listen. We hear this, for example, in “Live,” by Sydney from My Voice Music, a Creative Youth Development (CYD) program in Portland, Oregon that was founded to support youth mental wellbeing. As Rachel Jackson, a youth leader from Saint Louis Story Stitchers Collective, wrote in The Lewis Prize for Music’s Midcasting Toward Just Futures Report, “We want adults and the older generations to listen. Truthfully, we don’t care about how you dealt with depression ‘back in your day.’ Teens want to be heard; we want to be reassured.”

We must all be immediately purposeful in focusing on the mental well-being of our youth.

Hyde Square Task Force (Boston, MA) has long blended young people’s artistic development with community organizing. They maintained this virtually during 2020.

Thankfully, there are well-documented interventions to be made that can help protect young people from negative mental health outcomes. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy released a comprehensive guide to protecting youth mental health in December of 2021. This valuable Advisory includes a full section for community organizations. Likewise, the CDC emphasizes “connectedness” as a primary factor in strengthening youth mental health. Connectedness is developed by:

  • Showing care and interest in young people’s well-being and success.
  • Classroom management that enables young people to feel valued, heard, and participate.
  • Wider community relationships and service.
  • Explicitly providing support for LGBTQ+ youth, which improves outcomes for all.

The collaborative nature of artmaking can uniquely bolster youth mental health. As trusted partners of young people and families, Creative Youth Development programs and Music for Social Change programs are fully committed to creating safe spaces for the physical and emotional development of young people. This was a focus for many programs well before the pandemic and for many more since its onset. The Lewis Prize for Music’s national survey of CYD music organizations in early 2021 found that 70% of respondents named social connection as one of their primary services, alongside music making. Additionally, the percentage of such organizations that provide mental health support grew from 23% to 34% over the course of 2020.

However, considering the current full-blown emergency in child and adolescent mental health, this must be a priority for ALL programs. We are well past the point of believing that casual or inferred approaches meet the need. With summer programs right around the corner, there is an immediate opportunity to prioritize students’ mental health in new, more robust ways.

Your first steps can be as simple as:

  • Briefing your teaching artists and staff on this mental health crisis and using the resources linked above to start your discussions and planning.
  • Designing program activities with the explicit goal of strengthening “connectedness” among students and between students and adults.
  • Giving young people true authority to collaboratively make fundamental program decisions.
  • Incorporating and prioritizing community service activities.
  • Providing extra support and opportunities to young people most at risk.
  • Seeking new partners with mental health expertise so your efforts are connected to others in your community.
  • Accessing national resources, such as the Clay Center for Healthy Young Minds.

Infusing these practices into your program will simultaneously build up young people’s well-being and their musical development. Your students will be strengthened by the positive benefits, and you will show your entire community that music heals.


© Copyright 2022 Ensemble News