I came across an article on April 25, 2010 titled “‘American Idol’ judge Kara DioGuardi hosts charity golf outing for Phoenix House.” It contains excerpts from an interview with Kara DioGuardi from Golf Digest. She speaks about how she partnered with Phoenix House, a substance-abuse organization, to build music-recording studios for teens and women in recovery from drugs and alcohol addiction.
Ms. DioGuardi says, “I have seen the impact on kids who’ve had trouble divulging things in normal clinical therapy. When they go into the studio instead, it’s the kind of safe haven that allows them to talk about things that they wouldn’t otherwise talk about. It’s very helpful to their recovery.”
I wanted to find out more specifics about how the recording process helped in recovery and so I contacted the Phoenix House.
Since 1967, Phoenix House has grown to become a leading provider of alcohol and drug abuse treatment and prevention services operating over 150 programs in ten states. Currently, the organization cares for a case load of more than 7,000 through residential drug treatment for adults, residential Phoenix Academies combining long-term drug treatment and schooling for teens, outpatient care, after school, and day programs.
Arleen Kropf, Deputy Director for Marketing & Communication for Phoenix House Foundation in New York, got me in touch with Brian Edwards, Deputy Director at the Los Angeles studio and licensed therapist and John Morabito, the engineer at the studio.
Both are from the Phoenix Academy of Los Angeles located in Lake View Terrace in California. The Phoenix House there deals with youths, 13-18 years old, with serious substance dependency issues. Most come out of the California juvenile justice system where 70% receive residential treatment, 20% medical treatment and 10% treatment from private pay insurance. Phoenix House provides residential treatment for these youths. There are about 100 kids at any given time at the site who can stay up to a year.
American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi originated the idea of building a recording studio for Phoenix House 3-4 years ago. It was her way of giving back to the community. She was interested in building an effective facility that yielded results. The first studio was built at the Lake View Terrace location.
The program integrating recording activities has been refined over the years and has been running in its current form for the last 2-3 years.
Music has played a key role in reaching troubled youths to get them to open up about what is really troubling them. When kids come in, they are offered several different kinds of programs to engage them ranging from music appreciation of all styles of music to guitar instruction, vocal choir coaching and the recording program. Personal interests and preferences are taken into account when proposing an activity for each person. Each activity takes up a block of 2-3 hours at a time, typically in a group setting.
In the recording program, almost all the kids have never handled a microphone or know how it works, yet most are willing to give it a try. The idea of spending time in a recording studio is intriguing.
The studio is equipped with an Apple computer with Apple Logic as the main application program. Much of the gear such as the Rode tube mics, AKG headphones, and EVENT speakers were donated by each manufacturer. Kara, along with West L.A. Music donated equipment as well. The computer is loaded with over 100,000 beats, courtesy of one of the main sponsors, Big Fish Audio.
Typically, 8-10 kids are involved at a time per session in the studio. The recording space is small but sufficient to accommodate these kids, recording engineer and staff members. Before a session, kids are given 6-days to put their “heart on paper” and tell their stories. The living quarters that these kids stay in offer communal interaction. During the writing stage, peers act as sounding boards and aid in the creative process. They are focused on writing so they help each other despite their differences, even when they are from rival gangs.
99% of what is recorded is rap. On the day of the session, the engineer plays an assortment of beats until one of the beats catches someone’s fancy enough to try to rap what they’ve written down to that beat. Each person takes turns in rapping to the selected beat and then after a few tries, records the performance.
There is no vocal booth. The recording is done with everyone in the same room. This setting keeps everyone engaged. They listen to their peers rehearse as well as to the stories being told, provide suggestions and comments, stay quiet during the recording and think about what they are going to say when it is their turn. This is when the magic happens.
According to the engineer, John Morabito, the high point is watching the faces of the kids light up when they hear themselves on play back. “You have to understand that these are kids who have never used or even held a microphone before. They did not even know that they had it in them to be able to accomplish this (one) feat.”
Many kids who have trouble adjusting to treatment have found the music program to be their emotional outlet. They come out of their shells and become open to change. The staff has seen many challenging kids, who have had years of difficulty dealing with their emotional issues and substance abuse issues, become more involved in the treatment process via the music program.
There is a girl, a Ms. L, as tough as they come, who upon going through this process, opened up (during the session) and rapped about her relationship with her mother. The experience had a lasting effect. Even after graduating a few years ago, she still talks with some of the staff members on a weekly basis.
Another boy, a Mr. J, who had never rapped in his life prior to the program, completed 26 songs during his stay. His parents were so impressed, they came to the studio and asked what they could do to help their son continue. Upon receiving some advice, the parents bought some studio equipment a year ago and Mr. J converted his closet into a booth and continued to write and record songs. He has been clean to this day avoiding any cigarettes or alcohol.
Hundreds of recordings have been made ranging from just one verse of a well-known song to completely original songs showcasing hidden talent. The kids leave with their own recordings as reminders of their experience during their stay and as something they can point to as their own accomplishments.
Going through the recording process peaks their interest and appreciation for other forms of musical expression. The kids get the opportunity to attend concerts and to be exposed to different kinds of music. Recently, they were invited by MusiCares to attend the Grammy Awards show rehearsals and non-alcoholic gatherings to talk to people in the music industry.
There are now recording studios in Los Angeles and Yorktown, New York with plans to build more in Austin and Florida. Future plans include the addition of a DJ’ing program due to popular demand. The studios need more guitars and Discmans (when kids are going through difficult times, Discmans are given to them with music of their choice to help them get through the rough patches).
It is a wonderful thing to be able to operate a studio when you know that each recording has the potential to change someone’s life in a big way. Now, that’s a studio worth running!
NOTE: Special thanks to Arleen Kropf for arranging the interview and providing photos.