The young men of Team Geronimo have a myriad of interests and passions, not the least of which is music. A few weeks ago those young men were positively giddy because I, their therapist, had brought out a small set of speakers and some of their favorite songs. For one exciting hour the sounds of crackling fire and chopping vegetables were interrupted by hip-hop, country, and the occasional Katy Perry song.
When I bring music to the field, I do not do so casually or simply for listening pleasure. Songs are carefully considered and chosen with intention. While these intentions vary depending on individual student and group needs, critical thinking is an overarching goal for the intervention. Recently, as one well-loved, yet relatively provocative hip-hop song was playing and students were dancing and singing along, I noticed one of the boys sitting. I made eye contact with him, and at that point I knew he understood that music is a tool for much more than dancing.
Music has been used as a therapeutic tool for decades. It is used in end-of-life care, to help people cope with grief, and in family systems to help individuals to bond. Students often remark that the thing they miss more than computers, girlfriends, and mom’s cooking, is music. Because of this, I go beyond the guitars and drums that are typically utilized in the field. I occasionally haul a small set of bluetooth speakers to the field to play selected music. Like fire-making and hiking, I have observed that music can be an effective and interesting tool to enhance therapeutic work in the wilderness.
Music therapy in the wilderness likely began with guides and students sitting around the fire playing instruments and singing songs. Nicholson et al. (2008) and many other researchers have suggested that making music with people helps to form more positive and long lasting relationships. The milieu is often credited for the expedited therapeutic growth that can be accomplished in wilderness therapy, and music is a tool to make this milieu stronger and more vulnerable. People writing and playing music together is a collaborative process that brings them closer together, fosters teamwork, and encourages assertive communication (Wood, 2016). It has even been suggested that making music and sharing lyrics with people can make difficult conversations easier to facilitate (Krout, 2003). Indeed, every time one of my students writes and performs a Taylor Swift parody about their brothers in Team Geronimo, I know that music is bringing them together.
While guitars and drums are as native to wilderness as fire and deer, speakers and Top 40 hits are a relatively new development. I chose to expand the use of music in the wilderness in this way because I believe in my student’s ability to think critically. The majority of my adolescent boy students have listened to misogynistic, violent, and drug-glorifying music. In the wilderness they often report wanting to be respectful, peaceful, and sober. This contradiction was so interesting to me that I decided it warranted further exploration. I began soliciting lists of songs from my students, and seeing what came from pumping it out as loud as possible in the wilderness. The results have been consistently enlightening.
Steve Cobbett is a researcher and clinician who has explored the use of music in therapeutic settings. He has suggested that it can be a tool for people to explore their culture in a more critical and honest manner. The culture of rampant substance abuse resulted in many of my students’ enrollment in Open Sky in the first place, and music is now providing an opportunity for genuinely reflecting on friend choices, social and academic priorities, and the pressure they feel to conform to their popular culture. In his 2008 article, Cobbett also shed light on how listening to music can help people to understand the narrative structure they have created for themselves. While the young men in Team Geronimo may be dealing with a myriad of presenting symptoms, they are all struggling to create a healthy identity. Thinking critically about the lyrics they consume is one more way for them to explore who they are and how the world sees them. Music is often a primary mode of expression for adolescents, and wilderness therapy is a prime opportunity to explore the meaning behind these expressions.
The base was bouncing off the teepee walls and a few of the young men were loudly singing along; however, that one student had decided to keep his seat through the duration of the song. As the song wound down and I started to set the stage for an intentional debrief of the music we listened to, this young man took the lead and asked his teammates, “What did you guys like about that last song?” Students mentioned the beat, the rapper’s voice, and some other banal features. He followed up by citing one of the lyrics that promoted mistreating women, and asked if they had heard it. What followed was a two-hour conversation about the lyrics, treatment of women, and the relationships that the young men have with their girlfriends, moms, and sisters. It was a genuine opportunity for the young men to bond, reflect, and explore the culture and identities that they often take for granted. At times students are able to lead these discussions. At others times they follow my lead. One thing is clear, when I provide students the opportunity to engage experientially with the music and encourage them to think critically about their culture, identity, and social expectations, they respond every time. While it may sound like noise in that pristine natural setting, music can often be the impetus for the deep introspection that can only be found in wilderness therapy.
Cobbett, S. (2016). Context and relationships: Using the systemic approach with music therapy in work with children, adolescents and their families. British Journal of Music Therapy, 30(2), 65-73.
Krout RE (2003) Music therapy with imminently dying hospice patients and their families: Facilitating release near the time of death. American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine 20(2): 129–134.
Nicholson JM, Berthelsen D, Abad V, et al. (2008) Impact of music therapy to promote positive parenting and child development. Journal of Health Psychology 13(2): 226–238.
Oldfield A and Flower C (2008) Music Therapy with Children and Their Families. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Wood S (2016) A Matrix for Community Music Therapy Practice. New Braunfels, TX: Barcelona Publishers.