For the past four years, I've been involved with a local nonprofit, the North Cambridge Family Opera, which stages original productions featuring cast members age 7 to grandma, and with a range of abilities. In 2011, I wrote about how performing in the group's opera helped children with autism. This year, I was struck by the story of how music helps heal the past trauma of one young cast member, 8-year-old Aster, adopted from Ethiopia after her birth parents died. I asked Aster's mother to write a bit about their experience. Here's her post:
By Marina Vyrros
In the mid 1990s, I worked as a refugee aide in the Guatemalan rainforest.
Many people in that community — having fled horrific atrocities, like their villages being razed or worse — were suffering from post-traumatic stress.
Atrocities notwithstanding, a contingent of ranchero musicians somehow managed to lug homemade, oversized guitars to the camps and play music each night, often in the 100-degree heat.
While the NGO’s provided a valuable service — helping the people rebuild their external structures — the service that the ranchers provided, though perhaps less tangible, was invaluable. Their nightly gatherings, singing songs about their plight, helped the community to rebuild and heal internally.
Four years ago, when I adopted an almost 4-year old child from Ethiopia (who continues to recover from the trauma of having lost both birth parents during her formative, early childhood years) the lesson of the power of music was not lost on me.
Claudia M. Gold, a pediatrician, blogger and author of "Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's Eyes," explains what may be going on in my daughter's brain:
“Severe meltdowns are common in children who have experienced early trauma, at the time when the higher cortical centers of the brain were not yet fully developed. Stress of a seemingly minor nature can lead the rational brain to in a sense go 'off-line.' The child will have access only to the lower brain centers that function more instinctively.”
Especially during her first few years in Cambridge, Aster’s meltdowns were epic, but music and dance have consistently provided the most important vehicle to help her regulate her emotions.
Before, she might bang on the walls, now, to relieve her frustration, she pounds on a djembe, an African drum, in an afterschool program; instead of crying over seemingly inconsequential things, now, to release her emotions she invents and belts out Whitney Houston-y type songs, tears streaming down her face. To release her energy — which is abundant — she dances around. Everywhere. It all helps.
Recently, over the past five months, Aster's been singing, dancing and even acting with the North Cambridge Family Opera based in Cambridge. In this year's production, "Rain Dance," she and the other animals living on the South African savannah elect a Machiavellian lion in a desperate attempt to end the local drought. Trouble ensues.
All kinds of research suggests that music can minimize the symptoms of post traumatic stress and other types of trauma. A 2011 study found that guitar-playing can help veterans with PTSD drown out the traumatic memories of bombs blasting; and in 2008 researchers found some reduction of post-traumatic stress symptoms following drumming, in particular "an increased sense of openness, togetherness, belonging, sharing, closeness, connectedness and intimacy, as well as achieving a non-intimidating access to traumatic memories, facilitating an outlet for rage and regaining a sense of self-control."
Dr. Ross Greene, author of “The Explosive Child” writes that "children with behavioral issues don’t lack the will, they lack the skills.”
The skills Aster has gleaned from the opera are numerous. Here are a few: she's had to learn to moderate her voice: project when it’s called for, sing quietly, or not at all, when it’s not. She has had to learn how to be safe with her body on stage and to follow the beat. She's had to learn how to accept criticism gracefully and how it feels to be part of a group, building something larger, outside herself.
I’m in the opera too. And that's also led to a stronger attachment and greater bond between us. We both play animals: she’s a meerkat, and I, well, I'm a water buffalo. The other day, as we were walking home from her school and getting ready to perform this weekend, we seemed, suddenly, to have embodied our roles: she flitted about and I slugged along steadily following behind, but both of us singing and dancing all the way home.
Marina Vyrros is an English as a Second Language teacher at East Boston High School and lives in Cambridge.