Bethany Uhler Thompson didn’t know what to expect when she decided to start a youth string orchestra at Chatham Youth Development Center.
She was inspired by her uncle, who was incarcerated and had confided in her how isolating being in prison could be. Thompson used to perform with her cello in a juvenile detention center when she was younger, but she wanted to get incarcerated people involved in the community of music makers.
That’s how Chatham Strings was born.
For about two years, Chatham Strings, an orchestra made up of donated violins, cellos and one viola helped incarcerated children explore creativity, teamwork and accomplishment. COVID-19 stalled the program in 2020, and then Thompson graduated from her program and moved to California.
She hopes, however, that the impact has remained.
“There’s potential benefits to music involvement,” Thompson said, “like recovering from traumatic experiences in life, fostering a positive experience with learning and new experiences, education, and also developing interpersonal skills that are so essential to life.”
The results of Chatham Strings, which Thompson explored in her dissertation for a doctor of musical arts degree at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, are all anecdotal and correlatory, Thompson said. But some children said being involved in the program helped them try new experiences — even if they were told they were never going to succeed.
“They were discouraged from learning new things, that was part of their past,” Thompson said, “When they were given the opportunity to try something new, and they started enjoying it, and noticing a bit of success, they started saying, ‘Oh, why am I limiting myself?’”
Maybe success on the cello could transfer to success in beautician school, or math class, Thompson said.
Transformation through music
Chatham Strings was one look into the transformational powers of music, which studies suggest improve cognitive skills, health and well-being.
Just 40 miles away from Chatham Youth Development Center, Durham-based Kidznotes has boasted that participants in its out-of-school music program for students in lower-income areas have higher school attendance rates and improved academic performance. The program is based on the El Sistema model originally launched in Venezuela for children in impoverished neighborhoods to learn music.
More important than test scores, though, is the joy of music, said Shana Tucker, Kidznotes’ executive director.
“It is not something that stays,” Tucker said. “But it is something that hopefully we all experienced — at least once in our lives, at least once a week, once a day — but you’ve got to know what it is and recognize it when it comes because it dissipates.”
Tucker has spoken with countless parents who no longer play an instrument, but they can’t forget the first time they held one, how special it was.
Thompson recalled a similar reverence from the children in Chatham Strings, who, even in the midst of an argument with other students, set aside their instruments.
But is music special? What makes it different from other activities?
According to Donald Hodges, professor emeritus at UNCG, there is something unique, but nothing magical about music.
“The elements of all the bits and pieces probably can be found in other things as well, for different children, different individuals,” Hodges said,
Playing music can activate different parts of the brain, Hodges said. For example, when you play a violin, your right hand, which controls the bow, controls the rhythm, while your left hand, which presses the notes on the strings, controls the melody.
After doing that activity over and over again, it creates a permanent imprint on the brain.
That kind of coordination can be found in many activities, Hodges noted. He rejects ideas that music has a mystical, uncanny quality, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something important and uniquely human about making music.
Societies across the globe incorporate music into their daily lives, albeit in different ways. It is perhaps the human in music that makes it feel so special.
“Every musical style, if it’s your favorite, regardless of what it is,” Hodges said, “activates the part of the brain that says ‘Hey, I am a human being and this is how I feel about my humanity.’”
In recent years, research made possible through new imaging techniques that can show what the brain is doing in real-time has shown that music definitely has some neurological benefit. Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center researcher John Burdette found in a 2014 study that just listening to one’s favorite music changed the connections between auditory brain areas and the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s “responsible for memory and social emotional consolidation.”
Other research has explored how people with dementia are able to recall music lyrics, despite profound memory loss, and a recent study found that people who started music training when young had stronger structural connections in the auditory regions of their brains.
Healing through music
Thompson taught her students how to compose music in addition to playing, allowing them to further express themselves.
Incarcerated children are more likely to have exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), defined as potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The research shows that even as children accumulate such ACEs as the incarceration or loss of a parent, witnessing violence or having a close relative with mental illness, it puts them at higher risk of poor educational attainment, substance use and even physical health problems such as cancer in adulthood.
It can be hard for traumatized people to open up, Hodges said. Music can help.
One student in Chatham Strings composed a piece about the loss of a parent. The orchestra performed that piece, “Motherly Love.”
Encouraging reliability and reliance on others
Playing music and being part of an ensemble involves coordination and teamwork, but it also requires expression — as an individual and as a group.
“Everybody plays an important role,” Hodges said. “Not everybody can play first as well. So it’s a tricky balance.”
Tucker said her organization, Kidznotes, works to create a “community through music.”
“The dynamics of orchestra works is very similar to how you create an intentional community outside of the program,” she said.
Members of an orchestra support each other the same way they might support their neighbors or family members outside the orchestra. Just like in life, orchestra is more than just “playing your part,” she said.
In Chatham Strings, Thompson said students quickly realized that if one person missed class, they wouldn’t sound as good. Students then felt a responsibility not only to themselves or Thompson, but to the group itself.
“There’s a sense of responsibility,” Thompson said. “Of course, did that make them always make the right decisions? No. Does it do for any of us? But it had impact on them wanting to be responsible and be a part.”
The pandemic has affected how both groups feel that community through music.
Kidznotes was forced to go online as schools went online, and for some children that meant attending their group violin lessons from the McDonald’s parking lot because that was where there was Wi-Fi, Tucker said.
For children in school during COVID, life is hard and unpredictable, Tucker said.
The pandemic changed the way we feel community through music. But music still found a way.
As lockdowns began in countries around the world, videos of people playing trumpet or singing from their apartments circled around social media.
In the end, it comes down to joy.
That joy that music is so apt to bring is still retrievable despite the world. And that joy, that meaningful experience is something that anybody can experience, no matter your age, your cognitive ability or your numbers, Hodges said.
This article first appeared on North Carolina Health News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina.
Elizabeth Thompson is North Carolina Health News's Report for America corps member who covers gender health and prison health topics. Thompson is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate who has covered Texas politics for The Dallas Morning News’ Washington bureau, she's been a reporter for The Raleigh News & Observer and PolitiFact NC, and worked for GrepBeat, the tech news website.