Growing up, the generational gap between my taste in music and my parents was not even a measureable unit. For many young people, this causes endless misunderstanding. People like what they like, and its was always impossible for me to convince my parents to “give it a try” when it came to listening to my heavy metal or gangster rap phases.
But one thing we find being around teenagers is that they have an undeniable need to express themselves. And with unbelievable fashion trends and ever changing slang, music is one thing we can all appreciate, but we have to give it a chance first.
The proof is in the pudding, music changes everything. We might not be able to understand why kids blast Dubstep at an unreasonably loud volume, and it might just sound like noise to us “old” people. But where would we be today without that crazy Rock n’ Roll that your parents told you to turn down?
I’ve worked with kids for quite a while, and meeting a big group of teenagers is always terribly intimidating, but I think one very successful way to relate and communicate with teens is to ask them what kind of music they like. Something inside them is triggered when you mention “cool” musicians that they know and act like you know all about them. I’ve done my research on Justin Bieber and trust me; it pays to break the ice with his latest gossip.
The afterschool program at Kennedy Jr. High School in West Valley City has a really fantastic group of very diverse teenagers. My first day working there I saw a lot of really intelligent kids, but these students are still in the thick of the “not quite a kid, but not quite an adult” phase. Some kids are really mature, and some have no idea what’s going on, and it’s an interesting experience to see them interact with one another. Being young and figuring out what’s what in the world sometimes feels isolating. I know I’ll remember that feeling for the rest of my life.
We started a music appreciation class in our afterschool program. It’s a designated hour of music listening. Every teen gets a turn to play a song they really like on our speakers that can get nice and loud. I have each teen fill out a simple questionnaire about music in their lives. Some of the questions are about what their favorite song that week and why, but I also ask them why music is important to people. A lot of the students answered simply “it calms people down” or “it expresses feelings”.
One of my favorite answers to this question was from a 9th grade girl that said, “To be honest, I don’t know. It’s important to me because I can’t live without music”. And another from a 9th grade boy was, “Music is important to people to dance, to party, to listen, to create excitement, and to make our own music”. My favorite, most profound quote came from a 7th grade boy that said, “If I can’t sing then take away my voice so I can’t talk. That’s how much music means to me!”
It was beyond rewarding to read these questionnaires. Some kids that are so shy came up with some really insightful answers when it came to music. An 8th grade girl who seems to be pretty reserved said, “My favorite song is All Around the World by Justin Bieber. I like the artist because he followed his dreams and that’s what I’m going to do”. Another 8th grade girl who tends to be pretty shy said, “Music is my life, so when I hear a song starting its like my life is just beginning”. A girl that just joined our program said, “I feel like music is my only escape to everything,” which is one thing that probably rings true for all these teens.
Escaping with music is one thing anyone can understand, no matter what age. During our music appreciation classes we talk about how engulfed in a melody or stance of lyrics you can become. How one minute you can be listening to a really happy song getting totally “pumped up” and when the next song comes on and it’s somber and slow, you magically feel completely different.
The most incredibly profound thing that has come from this music appreciation class is how together it makes all the students feel. There was a moment recently that changed how I understood the unwritten language of “teen.” A student put on a popular song by Bruno Mars, who seems to be all the rage these days, and a really crazy thing happened. The normally loud and sort of chaotic banter that goes on between the 15 or so students in a small room became one unified song. Pretty much every single student in that room, no matter what nationality, age, or gender was singing along to the lyrics of the song. It was a moment of unity, a moment with a common denominator for everyone in that room. And while the teens probably thought nothing of it, I saw it as one of the most beautiful moments of human interaction I have ever witnessed.
So while we may think our teens are listening to outrageous music with meaningless lyrics or terrible sound manipulations, maybe it is important for us to get on their level with what they like, what gives their lives meaning, and what unifies a generation of our future leaders.