“A Place to Share What I Needed”: Finding Our Strengths at My Voice Music

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

“A Place to Share What I Needed”: Finding Our Strengths at My Voice Music

Ian Mouser, Founder and Executive Director, My Voice Music

06-07-2021

Students pose for a photo during Summer Rock Camp, 2015. Credit: Robert Delahanty

I founded My Voice Music as a nonprofit 13 years ago in Portland, Oregon. Our mission is to amplify young voices and ignite self-discovery through music. Our mantra is “Write, Record, Release,” and our medium is popular music. In a typical year, we serve over 1,000 youth onsite in residential facilities such as mental health treatment centers, migrant detention centers, and juvenile justice facilities. At MVM Studios, our headquarters and recording studio, we serve 400–500 youth from the general public through lessons, summer rock camps, an afterschool drop-in program, recording sessions, and leadership training. All our programs are pay-what-you-can, with 82% of youth on full or partial scholarship.

The idea for My Voice Music started in 2007, when I brought my guitar into a residential mental health facility where I was a Treatment Counselor working with youth. One of the kids asked me to teach him to play guitar and sing a song in time for the talent show. There was only one catch: the show was two weeks away. Rather than having him go it alone, I asked other boys on the ward to form a band. I brought in instruments and helped them write a song and learn simple parts that together made a big sound. During the two weeks of rehearsals, the boys were collaborating and excited to learn. Staff saw big shifts in their behavior; they were attending and staying in school more frequently, having breakthroughs, and managing their behaviors without violence. Through the focus required to learn an instrument and the vulnerability required to write a song and perform, they found new strengths within themselves. These transferred into other areas of their lives, helping them to heal and to cope with the huge challenges they faced. The adults in their lives saw these strengths too—further amplifying them. The facility directors recognized the power of this work and asked me to run music programs throughout the center.

For the first year, I was a one-man show (driving a 1985 Toyota van donated and kept operational by one of MVM’s first supporters). I hauled guitars, drums, cowbells, and the most ragtag portable recording studio you can imagine: a rolling table I bought at a thrift shop with a computer tower set up with recording software, encased in foam, and held together with 2 rolls of duct tape. Any time I had a doubt about the program, something happened that confirmed I should stick with it: a parent or therapist reported a breakthrough, or a kid recorded a song that took my breath away, or a new supporter showed up.

MVM Camp musicians, August 2018. Credit: Jason Quigley.

Since that first year, we have used the process of learning an instrument or writing a song to listen, share stories, collaborate, and build relationships with over 14,000 young people. A guiding ethos of our work is to treat all students as artists, providing them with a platform to share their work through performance and recording. In our five-day summer rock camps, students form bands and get introduced to rock instruments. They work with their peers to write songs, which they perform in a final show at the end of the week. Everyone goes home with a professional CD recording of their songs.

The curriculum continues in that trajectory, offering youth of all ages and levels of musical prowess access to recording facilities, performance opportunities, and opportunities to work with local musicians from Portland’s thriving indie music scene. As they progress, they are invited to join our professional development program, which equips students as young as 13 and up to age 24 to become paid teachers. For youth ages 18–24 who are transitioning into adulthood and have lost their support systems, we provide mentoring, ongoing access to our recording studio, and opportunities to collaborate and perform, as well as access to a robust network of social service providers.

With 12 years behind us, we are seeing the impact of our long-term mentorship model. A quarter of our year-round staff are former students. Graduates of our leadership training program are leading programs with grace and vision. MVM students (for example, the members of Searows) are recognized as some of the Pacific Northwest’s best emerging artists. These accomplishments are an important testament to the investment we make in every young artist who walks through our door or meets us in a facility. Mack, whom we first met in a residential treatment center and who later transitioned to MVM Studios, told us, “There’s no way I would’ve graduated from high school without MVM. MVM…made me care enough to want to take better care of myself.” Christian, one of our first students, joined us weeks after losing a friend to gang violence in East Portland. He attended MVM’s leadership program, worked at our summer camps, and went on to become a working musician, performing and telling his story. In his own words: “When I met you, I was so lost and angry. Music gave me a place to share what I needed to say.”

Time and time again, we find that music can be a vehicle for young people to realize their strengths. As we hold space for youth and treat them as artists and leaders with something important to share, we help build the leaders that our communities so sorely need.

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