A Boy Like Tom

Teaching a child to enjoy and learn with music is one thing; working with the unpredictability of learning difficulty is another …

Tom is a teenage boy with learning difficulties and a traumatic domestic past. As if being a teenage boy isn’t enough … with an outside world driving adrenalin and testosterone into his psyche daily, he’s pushing onwards to reach an age where he can be the rapping-from-the-hip street gangster he’s easily lead to admire and aspire to. He sees a life loaded with girls, cars and guns and likes it alot. It is his one true perceived escape into adult life.

And why not? Who are we to say that a boy in his circumstances, with the teasing, the recurring nightmare of childhood, the daily confusion of conversation, expectations and relationships, cannot have an escape, an outlet, a dream and a self-image that although imaginary, is heaven compared to his own living hell?

It’s a dangerous place to be, or so it would be were we not present in a special environment, set-up to work with and provide safety for a boy like Tom. His occasional lapses into high-anxiety and conflict usually have a trigger, and getting to know him is probably the most important skill to master, even for someone like me who strolls through the doors with the raison d’etre of a part-time music teacher.

Working with a boy like Tom can be a life’s work. No sooner are you intensely involved in his complexities, you start to see a rather troubled bigger picture. He won’t always be a boy, he’s growing at a considerable physical rate.

So when do we reach the point at which he becomes an adult for whom the world is a safe place, a platform on which to live, exist, and connect with?

Maybe never. You wouldn’t think that identifying, disclosing and challenging sexualised behaviours and conflict triggers would be the musician’s role, but this is the work here. Positive distractions and activities are aplenty and make the work so very worthwhile; we work as a team to pre-empt issues arising, safe in the knowledge that if all else fails restraint and access boundaries are not liked but are essential. These are challenging circumstances.

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For a period of time of around 12 months, Tom was not allowed access to rap music within his controlled domestic environments. This was necessary following heightened aggravated gangster-lingo behaviours and threats. However, wherever the freedoms of daily-life are provided - as always and as often as possible they are - he could easily find this gangster image, glorified and un-challenged in mainstream culture, media and social circles.

Without a working therapeutic outlet, knowing that we needed to provide or at least lobby a fractured social services and medical support network to provide one, we still looked to provide him with access to music.

We'd failed with an earlier attempt to inspire him to write his own words, however we were given another opportunity. On one particularly tetchy day, he requested that we support him with the creation and development of original music and lyrics. We knew this was a chance to produce some important work with him, but also with an element of risk that we had to carefully manage.

To begin with, this was fascinating as a music teacher. The intensity and the intelligence with which he created music tracks – mostly from loops and beats with Acoustica Mixcraft studio – was way beyond the level at which most of his other skills have developed.

Then came the lyrics, developed through free-styled, intense and angry rants providing graphic verbalisations of personal experiences, glued together randomly with rap clichés, spluttering foul-mouthed outbursts and gangster references.

Able to record these, I knew that I had the capability to report back, to ensure disclosure remained a priority, to gain the support of a professional team, and to pull the plug if necessary with their guidance and support. Safety is our priority and not (as I constantly had to remind myself), my own artistic muse or the high-energy uncontrolled outbursts of a troubled young man.

Here was an opportunity to discuss with him the use of threatening language, to challenge and discuss his anger, to share his personal experiences, for him to speak freely. Progress? Maybe, but who’s to know what actually stayed and would ultimately help him stay safe in the long term?

I also had an issue with his ownership of what was developing into a bigger project, a bigger picture to contend with, this being Tom’s perception that here was his CD in making, his stardom, his right to take his personalised rants littered with threats and four-lettered words out into the wide world.

Obviously this couldn’t happen. We had a serious confrontation. I wanted to support Tom in every way possible, yet this is our work, our challenge, to prevent confrontation in the first instance, to recover and create solutions in the second.

We had a week long break. On my return, Tom asked if we could chat. He spoke freely of his annoyance at my perceived editing of his work. I listened, pointed out that nothing had been erased, that it was safe in a secure digital space. It was an amazing recovery as he listened and embraced the idea that in order to progress with a CD, we needed to produce radio edits.

Within the confines of a music space, Tom was going to let off steam. He embraced the idea that the last 15 minutes of any session would be fun, a come down, a game maybe, during which we discussed how good it felt to get things off his chest, but also how important it is to return to ‘society’ and embrace community with positivity and acceptable behaviour.

I truly believe Tom got this, understanding the role of a therapeutic session, and how it relates to helping him when he leaves the controlled environment.

Is this music project still active? Presently no … one minor assault later (that thankfully was not music related, but based around an issue he brought into his music), and we had a police arrest.

There are many questions still left unanswered regarding his future, but one particular question remains strong – is a music session in this particular environment, albeit a delicate and difficult operation to manage and maintain –a step in the right direction towards a very necessary therapeutic process?

I hope so but I’m not 100% sure of how we are to progress. There are other agencies to work with, support and share knowledge with. There are risks, there are rights and liberties, there are policies, guidelines and directives, and the possibility of higher levels of restraint and security.

I am submitting a report that says a lot more about music therapy than music education. We’ll see …

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Simon Glenister's picture

What a great piece and very reminiscent of many clients I have worked with. As with a lot of the work we do it can often be very difficult to tell immediately what impact your having. It could well be something you said might have an immediate effect or could be something you did that the client/learner (still not come up with a good word for the people I work with) reacts to or remembers years down the line that makes a difference. I've been working for people with varying issues from mental health to behavioral issues, to offending backgrounds for the last 10 years and every now and then one of them comes back to you or you bump into them and they say something about what made a difference to them and it's often not the thing you thought it might be - but you made a difference anyway...often just by being consistent, following through on what you said you'd do, supporting and sometimes just being there. Training on how to deal with challenging circumstances, practice at dealing with them and support from the other people around the learner/client (there I go again) is hugely important as well. I was lucky in that I received a lot of this from my work in Youth Offending and also Connexions dealing day in day out with some pretty horrendous situations. What would be great would be a way to bottle that experience...ahh training a whole other topic right there - Anyway great post thanks

Mike Richardson's picture

Excellent blog there Darren.
A real insight into what it can be like to work in this area...
Thanks for this.
Mike Richardson

mlleclio's picture

very interested in this topic and appreciative of your endeavour. I also know from experience what closed books young people can be- their street image and its musical component being a very personal part of their identity. However - I would have like to have heard more about thespecific 'learning difficulties' as surely any strategy you developed would need to take these into account. Also, have read some very interesting stuff (T Denora: After Adorno) about how music - especially gangster - does have considerable influence and power (as your experience attests) - in the light of that it would be nice to hear more details of the musical specifics and whether there was any room for manouvre within that.

Jacqui Haigh's picture

A very timely piece Darren, as many embark on new work for Youth Music which may well include troubled young people with many of the challenges and frustrations presented by a boy like Tom. As music leaders we may never know if it was the the work we did that made the shift in one participant's thinking. We need to know that this takes time and commitment and resiliance and we can't do it on our own.Those shifts may also be hard to detect but through offering the best we can as music leaders and working with other professionals we may hold some of the keys that open new doors.