Teen Music Therapy for Mental Health: Expert Techniques & Benefits

Teen Music Therapy for Mental Health | Discovery Ranch South, A Residential Treatment Center for Girls and Teens Assigned Female at Birth

Discovery Ranch South not only provides help for struggling girls and teens assigned female at birth, but Discovery Ranch South also helps young women to become the best possible versions of themselves. This process often includes discovering new hobbies or interests. Students typically leave Discovery Ranch South having found new talents and skills through teen music therapy. For example, many young women learn to play guitar during stays of nine months or less.

However, when guitar teacher Marissa Manley was asked about how she is able to teach students how to play guitar so quickly, she made it clear that was the wrong question.

“It’s not about how fast you can teach a kid to play guitar, it’s about giving them the tools to teach themselves,” said Marissa.

Teach a Man to Fish

Marissa compared the experience of teaching someone how to play guitar to teaching someone to fish. As in the saying, “If you give a man a fish, he’ll be fed for a day, but if you teach the man how to fish, he will be fed for life.” According to Marissa, teaching these girls how to play guitar is the same concept.

The striking thing about this approach to teaching guitar is how much it has in common with the rest of the Discovery Ranch South philosophy. There are no quick fixes at Discovery Ranch South. In order to learn and achieve, students take the slow path. They focus on the fundamentals or core underlying issues. Only after a strong foundation is in place do they build on those skills.  

For example, if Marissa shows a student how to play a chord, then that student might forget by morning. Then Marissa would have to show the student again. It’s not the most productive way of teaching, so it’s not what Marissa does.

Instead, she shows students how to read a chord chart and how to understand and read music. With the fundamental ideas of music in place, students learn much faster and will retain most of what they learn.

“My job is really to teach these tools and give help when needed. That way the girls can take what they’re taught and learn these instruments at their own pace.”

This focus on music theory is a significant part of the music program at Discovery Ranch South. Performance Director Alex Allred explains, “Learning musical theory is something we hold very important in our programs. They need to learn chords, scales, notes, and intervals. Without music theory, they progress at a snail’s pace and will never be able to reach their full potential.”

Making the Fundamentals Fun

Students are not always eager to learn musical theory, even if it makes them better musicians. Most students look for the quick fix.  

“Most just want to hear a song and then just memorize where they put their fingers in order to play it. However, if they learn the actual rules and theory behind it, they are able to understand what the placement of their fingers, the tuning of the guitar and the strumming and plucking patterns mean,” said Alex.

“When they can understand, then they can do the work themselves rather than waiting for someone to drag them along.”

The majority of students learn to appreciate the importance of learning music theory when they come to understand music theory gives them the skills they need to develop independently. This mirrors the way that young women develop in other areas of Discovery Ranch South as well.

Many students are resistant when they arrive at Discovery Ranch South. After they participate in the program, they gain new skills. Over time, they see the way the skills help to improve their lives. During their stay staff members try to make their learning experiences as enjoyable and memorable as possible.

For example, Marissa has created interactive games in order to help students master musical theory.

“I have created a giant staff on the floor, and we learn scales, intervals, and notes on the giant staff. We also make it more fun by making it into a game to see who can find the note or interval the quickest. It really helps the girls to learn their theory while also having fun,” said Marissa.

Music as Motivation

Director of Education Clint Firth encourages staff members and mentors to keep in mind the real value of musical training.

“Kids are attracted to music because it looks fun, and they connect to musicians on an interpersonal level much more quickly than they do with people through other communication,” said Clint. “Humans, in general, are hard-wired to want to connect with others through music, and get immense pleasure whenever it happens.”

At Discovery Ranch South, teachers use this natural attraction to help a student go deeper with the learning process.  Teachers find a balance between teaching music theory and encouraging students to connect with other people through music.

“Once a student sees this connection they will often become internally motivated to learn theory and practice technique, and then look out! Once a student learns to value individual practice and learning the only limit to their ability will be their own passion and creativity,” said Clint.

By Trenna Ahlstrom