KidSpirit

Giving the Gift of Music

Imagine having an orchestra, a band, a singer at your fingertips, bending to your every whim. Your goal is to make one single song. There are no rules or confinements, no genre or message to abide by. What would your music say?

Despite being a creative and artistic person, it’s extremely difficult for me to create as a teenager: I have millions of ideas but so few avenues and methods to carry out these ideas. It’s not only logistically difficult — it’s emotionally difficult. For me and other young musicians, it's so hard to fully express ourselves and be vulnerable without extreme amounts of validation from the people who are creating with us.

You could provide a lot of gifts to a teenager, but, personally, to give me the gift of truly listening to me, understanding me, and supporting me would make a world of difference. Maybe the world would be a little different if we listened to what the younger generations have to say.

Hear Your Song is a nonprofit organization that does just this: it lets children and teenagers that suffer from serious illness write and create their very own songs. Volunteers from around the country help these children create a song with whatever instrument, style, or mood they desire.

Dan and Rebecca, a KidSpirit alumna, started this journey halfway through their sophomore year of college, and have since grown into a nationwide nonprofit organization. Despite recent events, they continue to amplify the voices of these children and teenagers through the medium of music.

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Katie: In your own words, describe Hear Your Song and what you do as an organization.

Rebecca: Hear Your Song is a national nonprofit organization with the mission of empowering children and teens with serious illnesses and complex health needs to make their voices heard through collaborative songwriting . . . Hear Your Song volunteers work with pediatric patients and young people who are experiencing serious health issues, and we help them write their own songs.

Katie: What is your relationship with music and how did that influence the creation of Hear Your Song?

Dan: I am a composer of mainly musical theater and opera, but also some choral music, and I play piano and sing. I really came up with the idea for Hear Your Song out of wanting to create a space for our college community to create without worrying about who was writing the best music . . . I really do believe the basic idea of having someone write words, listening to them, and listening to them with enough clarity and purpose to be able to respond musically . . . shows them that you see them as a full human being and you can respond in your own art to their art and that is at the core of what happens in the Hear Your Song process.

Katie: Walk me through the process of songwriting and recording.

Dan: In case you have kids or teens reading this who feel like they would qualify for this . . . if kids or families reach out to us through our website, they can set up one-on-one sessions.

It’s really going to look quite different depending on how comfortable or how much experience each kid has with songwriting already. . . . The overarching structure is just exploring a variety of topics that kids could write about. We really encourage whatever kids want to write about themselves and their stories. Then once we do that brainstorming, we do a free-writing process where kids can kind of just share whatever’s on their mind about that topic and write it down. Then we move into a stage where we are more focused on taking those ideas from the free-writing and organizing them into more of a structure that could be chorus and verse or more free. The next part of our songwriting process is focused on the music-making, which can look different in most of our sessions. We ask kids about what musical style they want, what instruments they want, what tempo. It’s a back and forth process. It’s whatever can most effectively give each kid access to express themselves that makes the most sense for them.

Rebecca: We use something called Soundtrap, which is a virtual recording app where you can set up tracks and everyone can record and see in real-time how the different tracks are coming together. There was a learning curve in the beginning, but we’re pretty used to it now. The other thing that it’s really enabled us to do is tap into our entire volunteer base. For example, if a kid at our chapter at Wellesley College wants a song with a harpsichord in it, we can send out a big email blast to all of our chapters and say: “Wellesley needs a harpsichord player! Does anyone play harpsichord?” And then it happens, so it has been in many ways a pretty useful way to work with people.

Katie: What song and story has touched you the most? Why?

Dan: I was helping to lead a session with a girl who uses a lot of affirmations like “I am strong, I am sassy, I am funny” to just give herself self-confidence, and she decided to use those as lyrics for her song. The way that she wanted to work she would hear the lyric and the college-aged singer would sing it back to her. We were practicing this on a Zoom call and it was a really beautiful moment of a girl under 10 who was giving herself this confidence, and what could be this older voice singing it even more confidently and more elaborately, confirming: “You are strong and you will be strong 10 years from now,” and it was really beautiful.

Katie: How has this process changed you as a person?

Rebecca: For me, it's really a huge blessing to have an opportunity to make music outside the professional musical theatre world, and every time I lead a session or listen to an HYS song or get to work on an HYS song it reminds me why I love music and why I think music is really important and really powerful, so it reminds me why I wanted to make music in the first place. Seeing it pass from our hands from when we were undergraduates to the next undergrad leaders, and now it’s a nonprofit, seeing other people leading chapters at colleges and volunteers and leading songwriting sessions was such a cool moment because it was this thing we had built that was just taking on a life of its own and affecting other people and changing other people’s lives.

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Rebecca and Dan have continued to work through the pandemic, now able to reach more children and teenagers around the country, but they are eager to get back together in person to make music and connect with their clients face-to-face. Hear Your Song has helped orchestrate over 100 songs, and they will continue to make plenty more.

Interviewing Rebecca and Dan was an experience I will never forget. They were not only charming but also committed and passionate. I could tell how happy Hear Your Song made them feel, and I could not see anyone leading this wonderful organization except them.

I personally think one of the most fascinating aspects of Hear Your Song is that the organization strives for a very pure goal regarding music: giving a stage to those who have stories to tell yet who are often unheard. That is something sacred and should be kept for as long as humanly possible.

Katie Lamm is a 16 year old KidSpirit editor from Memphis, Tennessee.

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