My Voice Music: Igniting Self-Discovery For Oregon
Authors: Alfonso Hernandez (Guatemala), Rebecca Kim (USA), Jenny O’Connor-Madsen (Ireland), Evangelos Saklaras (Greece).
My Voice Music (MVM) was developed at a residential lockdown facility for young people experiencing mental health and behavioral challenges. MVM’s founder Ian Mouser, who was a treatment counselor in the facility, recounted the environment as one where residents received all the basic resources to live and medically treat their symptoms. However, even with these needs met, violent outbursts and conflicts frequently occurred, for which the facility’s typical response was physical restraint or isolation. The program lacked regular, normative activities that could provide residents with an outlet for their stresses and emotions, such as sports or creative arts.
One event that Mouser’s facility produced was an occasional talent show. With the news of an upcoming performance, a few residents approached Mouser, a guitarist, for help in preparing an act. In response to this request, Mouser organized a six-member band, provided them with instruments, and helped them write a simple song to perform. In the days following their performance at the talent show, the facility staff noticed that the need for behavior and violence interventions decreased and class attendance improved. From these circumstances, Mouser realized that regular music-making activities could create a positive and potent impact in residents’ lives. Research supports Mouser’s findings, as it has been shown that music can support the healing of those who have been traumatized. Research also shows that music can offer relief from the rigid schedules of residential care life. Music “creates spontaneity… and takes you to a place where you can leave the regimen and go off in a world that you create and that you connect with on your own terms”.
Upon the success of this pilot project, Mouser was encouraged to continue engaging residents in music-making activities, and in 2008 he established My Voice Music to reach youth beyond the residential facilities. Now in its thirteenth year, MVM reaches over 1500 youth between the ages of 8 and 24 per year in Portland, Oregon. According to the organization’s 2018 Annual Report, among the youth they reached were 635 in crisis, 341 in mental health hospitals, 94 in foster care, 99 in behavioral rehabilitation, and 30 refugees. MVM offers a variety of music-making opportunities and programs with different goals and levels of involvement. Their main studio is located inside Portland’s Sunnyside Community Center, where participants come to write, play, and record original music. With the mission of “amplifying young voices and igniting self-discovery through music” MVM has developed its model to focus on self-expression and community that serves as the uniting force among the various program selections. In all their classes, MVM students are expected to collaborate with a diverse group of peers regardless of their musical experience. Their services range from weekly Artist Mentorship Programs – where small groups rehearse, record, and workshop songwriting guided by an MVM teaching artist – to Hip-hop labs, private lessons, or simply becoming an Open Studio for youth to gather after school.
While the program has expanded beyond residential institutions, MVM continues to maintain reiterations of MVM’s pilot project in partnership with three residential facilities. Chris Arnold, an MVM Program Leader and Teaching Artist, explained these activities as opportunities for residents to “step away from all of that therapeutic intervention… to have fun and play some music, and you know, it passively does some of those therapeutic things anyways”. The Satellite Programs, which are similar to the studio classes that include ukulele, guitar, singing, and songwriting, are facilitated by MVM core staff members including the Studio Director, Program Leaders, and a Licensed Social Worker and Child and Family Therapist.
Studying the work that My Voice Music has been doing for Portland’s youth and community at large has been a rewarding experience for our Case Study Team. We were inspired by our interactions with Ian Mouser, who tragically passed away in October 2021, shortly after our second interview with him. While Ian’s death was upsetting for our team, we felt motivated to continue our work and honor Mouser and the insights he shared with us. The experience gave us an insight into our own ability to be resilient and to continue with our work when faced with loss. In the wake of his passing we have witnessed the MVM community mourn, honor, regain strength, and move forward with renewed energy in the past months. Their example has motivated us in our research. My Voice Music became a story of resilience, unity, and shared vision for all of us.
However, we think there could be another possible way to continue supporting their beneficiaries under such variable circumstances.