Percussion Healing Trauma

As an arts organization running programs in every corner of Chicago, we know that many of our students have been exposed to trauma that ranges from gun violence to substance abuse. How do we reach these young people where they’re at and channel creative expression into healing? We are hoping to find some answers to this complicated question by embarking on a new path to becoming a trauma-informed organization.

This year we are partnering with Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network (UCAN) in the North Lawndale neighborhood to implement a program called Arts Healing Trauma, supported by a matching challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. UCAN works with youth and families to recognize the impact of violence and trauma in order to create safety and healing; they work primarily with youth in the care of the state child welfare system and youth who have been removed from their families for reasons of abuse or neglect.

Arts Healing Trauma provides UCAN youth with access to a variety of creative experiences alongside Urban Gateways artists. One of those artists is Josh Guy, a percussion teaching artist; Josh took a few minutes to tell us about his experiences teaching Saturday workshops for UCAN youth. Take a minute to learn more about this important work from someone who knows it best.

Urban Gateways (Anna): So I know you got started with Arts Healing Trauma by attending our trauma-informed care professional development series led by UCAN staff last summer. How did you get involved with that?

Josh Guy: Somebody from Urban Gateways mentioned it to me when it was in its planning stages and it sounded valuable. I had experiences working with trauma in other venues but not with Urban Gateways. I learned a lot during the training and it really reinforced my teaching, tactics I’ve seen as successful with certain students. I liked the style and presentation.
Can you describe the program you’re leading at UCAN?

It’s a West African drumming class, once a week on Saturdays. Students are mostly in the 5th-6th-7th grade range, but some are 19 or 20, and they’re all in the residential program at UCAN. We started with a drumming and dance pilot program in February, where the kids came for five weeks, and then we had a performance showcase at the end with a good turnout. Since then I’ve been working at UCAN two hours a week on Saturdays. Different students come in and out. It’s an open thing, we’ve tried to include as many people as possible so they get a feel for the drumming, and every week they announce it in the building, so whoever is available can come. At first it was a really big group, lately it’s been four or five students each time – which actually turns out to work well, because those students especially benefit from the one-on-one attention.

I’ll be there at least through July, which is another good thing about this program; you have time to build. These students have a lot of opportunities [for extracurricular activities] at UCAN, so they’ll attend my class once, then go do other things, and come back three weeks later and often they shock me with what they can retain.
What do you do during a typical class?

We talk about the drums, talk about where they come from, the technique and history involved. I have several instruments there, so students get to try a few different parts of the music. And they’ve been really eager to try something new all the time. They pressure each other in a good way…the older kids, they egg each other on, encourage each other. That always turns into involving staff too. Usually there’s a couple staff members who are sitting by, but then the kids have fun – or difficulty – and ask staff to get in on it, and we include everybody.
Have you seen any kind of attitude shift in your students as they get to know this art form?

I see a shift everywhere I go, but here especially. They’re cautious at the beginning. A few kids, they were so quiet to start, and now they’ve completely opened up. It’s true no matter the age. Sometimes younger kids will help lead the older kids…it’s a good dynamic.
What do you hope these students take away from your percussion workshops?

I hope they have the confidence to try something new, and that they see their own ability to learn. Also that they can specifically participate in this culture and music. It’s something they can keep their whole life; they don’t have to be professional musicians, but this art form is both physical and mental and you can hold onto it.
What are you, as a teaching artist, taking from last summer’s training and applying to this residency?

The overall tone, and how you approach the students and let them approach you – working at their speed. That’s really important, working at their speed. These kids, I’ve noticed it more with them than other students I’ve had, they’re very self-aware. They’ll go 40 minutes and then they’ll get tired and say, I’m at my limit. With other students, I might push them, but with these students they’ll say, that’s all I can take today.
So what do YOU hope to learn and carry forward from teaching at UCAN?

I’m very aware that there’s a healing side to the music I play, and everyone comes to it for their own reasons. That’s something I’m very interested in.

A lot of people use it as a therapy, or a meditative kind of practice, because you’re doing something productive and it takes all of your focus. So the longer you can hold the focus, it’s a kind of exercise for self-control. The more self-control you can build, the stronger your brain and thinking are growing.

The longer we can work to build this kind of skill, the better. For these youth, it’s a huge opportunity to work at something and build on it and explore the opportunities it can open. There’s so many classes and cultural events in the city and I’m hoping this will help my students feel those events are more accessible to them.


Josh, pictured left, during an “ArtsCAN” workshop with youth in UCAN’s violence prevention program last summer.

Thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for providing crucial Arts Healing Trauma funding!