During his Wednesday Berklee School of Music class, 24-year-old grad student Kevin Leong helped teach students the song “Jingle Bells” — not how to play the musical notes, but how to sing the English words.
The students were guests at Rosie’s Place, a shelter for poor and homeless women and the first women’s shelter in the U.S. Many women who come to Rosie’s Place are immigrants and still struggle with speaking English.
For the past three semesters, Leong has participated in a Berklee class that helps these women, many in their 40s, with their communication skills through music therapy practices.
Music therapy is an established health profession in which through music and a therapeutic relationship, people address the physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs on an individual, explained Peggy Codding, a professor of music therapy at Berklee.
With this class, the therapy aspect comes from sharing personal stories. Berklee students sit down with women from Rosie’s and learn about their lives, asking the women where they grew up, stories about their home country, what holidays they celebrated and so on.
The Berklee students then use their song-writing skills to turn those stories into lyrics. The students are also all trained in improvisation, Codding said.
They bring instruments like guitar and drums to class and give the Rosie’s women — many who have strong ties to music from their own cultures — maracas and shakers, to add rhythm to their conversations.
Leong noted that the aim of the class is not to improve the women’s “grammar or syntax,” but to connect and make them more comfortable with an unknown language by tying it to the common denominator of sound.
“What we aim to do is improve their conversational English and confidence in speaking,” he said. “We empower them through songwriting, using their words exactly to write the songs.”