They stroll into the room one by one, taking their seats in front of drums and other musical instruments. They bring with them energy, excitement, and enthusiasm, along with some pain they hope to heal.
A few times a week, the folks who enter the Music Heals class at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles come in ready to release, not only through instruments, but with words.
“I’m 24 years old. I spent seven years of my life incarcerated as a juvenile and one year as an adult,” says Daniel Bisuano, a Homeboy Industries trainee and aspiring actor. “I mean ultimately I came to Homeboy because I didn’t know how to hold on to any other jobs.”
Before they pick up an instrument, Bisuano and his fellow trainees start class by talking about what they feel at their own pace and tempo.
“When I came here, this gave me the ability to learn how to heal,” Bisuano says. “Everyone was like, 'Music heals,' and I’m like, shoot, let me try that out.”
Music Heals is a program that was put together as a partnership between Homeboy Industries and the Young Musicians Foundation (YMF).
It aims to help trainees de-stress by learning how to play music and talk about any issues they may have all at once.
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“Just the feeling in the room, the feeling in the room when everybody comes in and they check in at their drums and you can just see the weight of whatever they brought in kind of leaves,” says Walter Zooi, executive director of YMF. “Music, it’s an essential part of what makes us human. The kind of immediate connection that you feel between the folks in the room around you, the connections you feel in parts of yourself you might not usually be able to access everyday.”
Zooi gives credit for the idea to legendary songwriter Mike Stoller, who wrote dozens of chart-topping songs in the 1950s and 60s. Stoller told Zooi he was thinking of starting a music program at Homebody Industries.
“And I said, ‘Mike, if there’s any way Young Musicians Foundation can help out, we’d love to be part of it.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you come to the meeting?'” Zooi explains.
Nine months later, Music Heals held its first classes.
“Frankly, I hope other people do this other places because I think it works,” Stoller says. “And whether any of these musicians become proficient musicians or employable musicians, that would be a thrill. But if they don’t, it opens their eyes and their minds to all kinds of things. Music does that.”
It has definitely opened things up for Noemi Fonseca, a mother of three and recovering addict who worked at Homeboy Industries in the past before relapsing.
“I’ve been battling anxiety for years. And lately I’ve been feeling like it’s been getting the best of me. But I go to work and I reach out and share how I feel and there’s always somebody there to bring you out of it,” Fonseca says. “When we start playing the instruments, it does heal... It really does, because it gives me a mind change, like instantly.”
Martin Flores, a six-time Grammy winner, teaches percussion for Music Heals and gets to see firsthand the transformation people can experience.
“Seeing their faces at the end of any piece, it’s like wow,” Flores says. “The reactions are priceless when you say that. They go from one mood to the other. And it’s pretty instantaneous.”
While offering trainees different ways to express themselves, it's also giving many of them their first real introduction to music.
“I had the great privilege of being able to play music when I was a young man. And not everybody has that privilege,” Zooi says. “Unfortunately, there’s often a socioeconomic barrier associated with being able to learn how to play music or just experience it.”
The program gives trainees a chance to play anything from drums to piano, and even a chance to sing.
“Many of us have talents, hidden talents, that we don’t discover because we don’t have the money or the resources to do that,” Fonseca says. “I think it’s a really good program. And you know, it gives us all an opportunity to express ourselves.”
In addition to the Music Heals program, YMF provides music instruction for over 4,500 under-served, often marginalized students at 26 under-resourced schools and sites on a weekly basis throughout Los Angeles.
The connection between YMF and Homeboy Industries is now two-years strong, helping people heal every day.
“There’s people who have been here that have been away for a while from regular society,” Flores says. “When they come here, their strength is them. It’s inside of them. We just help bring it out.”