Ready to Fly 

How Melodic Connections’ Liz Novak uses trauma responsive music therapy to help teen girls rise above their challenges.

Liz Novak is a board-certified music therapist at Melodic Connections and our Learning and Engagement Coordinator. Her role has been expanding as we bring the transformative power of music to communities around Cincinnati.

Her recent work includes a workshop with NKU master’s level students studying school and clinical counseling, a professional development session in our new community space with Ohio Music Teachers Association, and ongoing sessions with teens girls who are facing tough challenges. Trauma Responsive Music therapy is proving to be an effective tools to help this group of teens overcome trauma.  It’s with this last group that Liz has seen how music makes an impact. Music has helped the girls uncover a new path and embrace life during a time when their personal struggles can feel overwhelming. “I’ve been honored to hear their stories and what they’ve gone through,” said Liz.

The music sessions start in a group setting, which helps the girls feel safe and that they belong. In the beginning, some girls can only bring themselves because showing up is the best they can do. They may sit quietly to the side and watch. But as relationships are built and trust is established, things shift.

Liz is excited to talk about her work with one of our partner organizations and about how she uses music to help these very resilient girls on their journey – from group sessions to individual sessions and beyond.

The Music Therapy Begins with a Simple Mission – To Enjoy Music

“The girls start with me in a group space for several weeks if not a month, month and a half before they can choose to be in an individual music therapy. We have a relationship that has been built in the group music session, so they already have a familiarity with the process and me personally.

The group space starts the process of them feeling safe. Being in a group has its own inherent difficulties, however you aren’t one-on-one so it’s less intimate. The group is designed to work on some of the emotional things the girls need.  We talk about life experiences, coping skills and relationships, but part of the group is also enjoyment of music for music’s sake. We create music as a community together and it may include musical games, improvisation, dance. They can participate as much or little as they want which gives them the agency and choice on what they want to do.”

Overcoming Trauma: A Desire to Learn More

“If they elect to be in individual music therapy, they’ve said “I love music. I want to learn this skill.” They know their goals, which helps create a safe space and we can start from a deeper place.

At the beginning of an individual session, they get to choose how they check in. They can choose to pick a word on their feeling or emotion, they can create a mandala, or we can listen to a song together. After we’ve checked in and talked about what’s going on in life, we work on what they’ve expressed as their music therapy goals. They may want to learn guitar, songwriting, write raps, learn the piano. They may want to work on responding to when they’re feeling emotional or developing coping skills or creating playlists around certain emotions.”

Trauma Recovery: How Music Helped Lift One Girl From a Dark Place

“Some girls have shared very impactful things with me. One girl in particular, she had been in group for about a month. We were working together for several weeks and she was learning a specific instrument. She often wanted to start with a particular song at the beginning of her session that related to her struggles. She shared with me that the song was special because it had lifted her up when she was in a very dark place. It’s given her hope to move forward. She shared how her battle and her strength comes from the song and her treatment journey. It had taken a month in group and several weeks in individual before she felt comfortable enough to share that story with me.”

A Shift Occurs

“I see this with a lot of the girls. It’s a hard time for them and when they first start in group, they visually don’t look like they’re necessary enjoying it. They’re in sweats, slippers and energy is very, very low. There could be some anger and sadness. When they enter individual music, they’re further along in their journeyl. You can see the visual shift in them. They have a purpose and a drive, which in the music realm could be “I’m going to get a guitar. I want to be in my school choir.” They are excited about their next steps. Their self-esteem blossoms. They might do their makeup, their hair looks better, they’re more animated, sitting up straighter. They want to talk. The excitement is there. We’ll listen to a song and they tell me all the things they want to do. You can see the shift in them. To have someone from the outside come in and work with them specifically about something they are passionate about is really exciting for them. Embracing life and their purpose going forward and often uses music in that.”

Sometimes You Can Only Bring Yourself

“To bring it back, it’s because of the safety at the beginning of the group space. Sometimes when we’re checking in they say “I can only bring myself.” They can’t bring joy, happiness, sunshine, support. And that’s OK. As long as they can bring themselves, that’s all I ask. We have girls that sometimes need to sit and not participate actively but they are there passively and they’ve chosen to stay. To have them start that way and then eventually see them participate more and pursue their unique interest is such a cool process to see.”

Ready to Fly

“It ends up being a celebration toward the end. I share how excited I am for them and how much we’ve done together. We’ll end with a collection of their music or I might send them off with guitar chords or keyboard music they’ve worked on. We’ll print off songs they’ve written. It’s a celebration of their time and that they’re ready to fly. Music is the thread all the way through.”

Liz is a key member of our team involved in many programs. See a sample of her projects in the gallery.