Category Archives: music

Singing a different tune

I’m not a music educator or music therapist, but I’m a music lover and an occasional music maker, and I know the power that music has in my own life. The importance of music in the lives of the children and teens I have worked with is so huge that it often comes into play in the therapy. Sometimes, it IS the therapy. Consider this example:

A ten year-old African-American girl is in a long-term placement with a Dominican foster mother who is planning to adopt her. The child has a beautiful voice and loves to sing along with the Latin music that’s played all the time in the home. In our weekly art therapy sessions, she sings these songs while she works, and teaches them to me so I can sing along with her. We fall into the habit of singing together every week, and our singing is filled with energy and fun. After a number of years, the placement is disrupted (an all too frequent occurrence in foster care) at the foster mother’s request; she feels overwhelmed by the child’s problems and changes her mind about adoption. The child is replaced with an elderly churchgoing African-American woman. In therapy sessions, the child continues to sing Latin songs for a long time, but the fun is gone and there is a pervasive sense of sadness and longing to her singing. At home, she attends church regularly with her new foster mother. Over the course of a few months, the songs in our sessions slowly change from Latin music to hymns, and eventually she starts to sing the hymns with a sure, powerful voice. The Latin songs disappear from her repertoire. And it is this musical communication that tells me she is beginning to absorb the loss and to form a new attachment.

For it is in giving that we receive

That’s some wisdom from Saint Francis of Assisi.

Stained glass window in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

If holiday giving is your thing, and you support organizations that benefit kids’ learning, development, expression, and self-worth, you’ve come to the right blog.

We must not stint on our investment in our children. They are our hope and our future, and give us so much joy in the present! Last year I wrote a couple of posts about some organizations that support children and teens in profound ways. They are still my top picks, so I’ll refer you to those posts.

Most people who are acquainted with me personally know that I am a summer volunteer and member of the amazing, transformative Camp AmeriKids community. Camp’s mission is “to enhance the lives of youth living with the challenges of HIV/AIDS and sickle cell disease by providing an enriching summer camp experience, year-round skill building and a supported transition to adulthood.” Here’s what I wrote about camp last year. This year a new year-round mentoring program has been added. I cannot say enough about the wonderful ways this organization changes the lives of everyone it touches! Find out more at

Other orgs I listed last year:, Project Rhythm, 826 Valencia, and Girls Write Now. Please check them out here. They all continue to do fantastic work promoting children’s literacy and artistic expression (which are so intertwined) and changing lives.

May you give, and may you receive. Happy holidays!


This was a big week for deaths. Pete Seeger, one of my lifetime inspirations. The brilliant actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. And…my dog Gus. Like Seeger, Gus was an old man (thirteen), but was in great shape for an old guy.  So the suddenness was a shock. And if you love a pet, you know why the loss brought heartbreak. The real Day of the Dead happened a couple of months ago, but at my house, a little Día de Muertos art/music therapy is in order right now.

I’ve spent many years and many miles walking with Gus in Central Park. Since I’m a scavenger, I have collected hundreds of rusty wires that I’ve found on my walks. They’re double loop rebar ties that were used to tie wire fencing to the posts (now they use a heavy duty plastic type). The wires are lying around all over the park, although I may be the only person who considers them treasures. Those that were dropped and are intact have a loop on each end, have wonderful shapes, and are great for making mobiles and all kinds of other things. The twisted and broken finds are also great for flower stems, picture hangers, jewelry, all kinds of things.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis necklace documents our mornings spent together: years worth of Gus’s worn dog tags, rusty wires, and other found objects. The yin/yang dog tag at the center was an unusually great park find, and I think it belongs here, since life and death cannot exist without each other. I made this a bunch of years ago, and as we’ve grown older together, I’ve had more dog tags to add.


Here’s my all-time favorite dog song, by one of my favorite artists. A tribute to Gus and to all our beautiful dogs out there. The Dog Song by Nellie McKay.

Give and you shall receive

Here’s a short list of great orgs that support learning in profound ways. Some are seeking volunteers, and all are seeking $ contributions.

DONORSCHOOSE.ORG   What’s very high up on the list of the most important things in the world? The education of our children. Yet teachers often don’t have the bare essentials to help kids learn. If you have any teacher friends, you know that although they are seriously underpaid, they are always spending their own money for all kinds of things. The national organization makes it possible for public school teachers in underfunded schools to raise money for projects and supplies. “Public school teachers from every corner of America post classroom project requests on our site, and you can give any amount to the project that most inspires you.” BIll Ohl, a 6th grade teacher in a high poverty school in the Bronx, is a superhero fundraiser and has a special way of choosing books that engage his kids: popular series; bios of people they’re actually interested in, like the band One Direction; and pithier books like The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (great book, review here). You can watch Bill talk about his book drive here. Kate Clute, an elementary school teacher at Bronx Community Charter School last year, discovered that many of her students had never been out of their Bronx neighborhood. So she raised the money through to take her students on a springtime double-decker bus tour of Manhattan. Afterwards, they spent time polishing up their letter-writing skills:


PROJECT RHYTHM   The mission of Project Rhythm, a Brooklyn, NY-based non-profit: “To use music as an educational tool to improve the social and emotional, cognitive, school performance and job readiness of youth who are poor in means, but rich in potential. Project Rhythm is committed to using music as a way to educate and prepare youth to become beneficial contributors in society.” I’ve seen Project Rhythm’s programs firsthand because they run programs at Camp AmeriKids, where I work. They get kids making music: writing, collaborating, performing, recording, engineering. Then they place them in internships. What more perfect way to connect with youth than through music? Their gains from this musical journey affect all the areas of their lives. You can read testimonials from some of their students and listen to some of the work of kids in Project Rhythm programs at sites as varied as Horizons Bronx Juvenile Detention Center, Public School 307, South Asian Youth Action, and Camp AmeriKids.

826 VALENCIA   Co-founded by writer, editor, and publisher Dave Eggers, 826 Valencia is a nonprofit org “dedicated to supporting students ages six to eighteen with their creative and expository writing skills and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. Our services are structured around the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen when trained tutors work one-on-one with students and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success.” This groundbreaking San Francisco literacy project now has spinoffs in seven other cities. Eggers talks about the history of the org in this informative and entertaining TED Talks video.

GIRLS WRITE NOW   Girls Write Now pairs underserved girls with women writer mentors. Their mission: “To provide guidance, support, and opportunities for at-risk and underserved girls from New York City’s public high schools to develop their creative, independent voices, explore careers in professional writing, and learn how to make healthy school, career and life choices.” Let these gals tell you themselves:

A Christmas Carol

Like the Charles Dicken’s tale, this one’s about transformation and haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past. It’s about a ten year-old foster child with big trauma in her past and very aggressive behavior, which leads to a hospitalization, and then to art therapy with me. For a long time she is mostly non-verbal and sullen in the sessions, although clearly smart, and she mostly doesn’t trust me. Her birth mom has a history of heavy substance abuse and they’ve lived through lots of domestic violence. Mom has made many positive changes after a long uphill climb, and she is fighting to get her children back, all five of them. All this child wants for Christmas, she tells me, is to go home. I am awed by how hard she works to overcome the challenges she faces. Often she is not successful and beats up on herself. But she tries as hard as any kid could possibly try. She’s a fighter.

She loves to sing and dance. She is truly an amazing dancer, and regularly dances in our sessions. She doesn’t want to talk to me but she wants to dance for me. I am wowed by what a great dancer she is! At some point, she asks to use my iPhone to find music she can dance to, and I show her how to use Spotify to play the songs she likes. This Spotify/dance thing becomes part of our weekly routine. Sometimes she comes in and does nothing but sing and dance for the whole session.

When she’s not singing and dancing, she wants to make iPods and iPhones. She might not be talking much, but she’s got communication on her mind. She enlists me to cut the devices out of cardboard with my exacto knife and to help her copy the screen from my phone. Then she decorates them and makes earphones out of pipe cleaners. She makes many of them, and they all look pretty much like this reproduction:

phone buttons


phone jewels


One day she comes in after having had a very bad fight in school, refusing to speak, looking angry at the world and probably herself. She gives me the cold shoulder. I give her my iPhone and ask her to find a song that describes her day. As angry as she is, she can’t resist an iPhone, and she types “I Don’t Care” into the Spotify search bar. A lot of songs come up with this title, and she goes through them one by one until she finds one with a loud, angry, punk sound. This one, she says. Then we listen for awhile as the grating song bombards us, and talk a little about what happened.

A few weeks later she comes in feeling great and asks to use my phone to find some music. I ask her to pick a song to describe her life this week. She doesn’t hesitate. The Climb, by Miley Cyrus. She launches into it with great feeling. Although she’s an amazing dancer, she doesn’t actually have a great voice, and the fact that she’s singing a little off-key only makes her impassioned singing more beautiful.

She gets what she wants for Christmas this year. She and all of her siblings go home to their mom by early September. I haven’t had any word of how they’re doing. Keeping my fingers crossed for them. God bless us, everyone!

I can almost see it
That dream I am dreaming
But there’s a voice inside my head saying
You’ll never reach it

Every step I’m taking
Every move I make feels
Lost with no direction
My faith is shaking

But I gotta keep trying
Gotta keep my head held high

There’s always gonna be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose

Ain’t about how fast I get there
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side
It’s the climb

The struggles I’m facing
The chances I’m taking
Sometimes might knock me down
But no, I’m not breaking

I may not know it
But these are the moments that
I’m gonna remember most, yeah
Just gotta keep going

And I, I got to be strong
Just keep pushing on…