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Sound Effects: From Tupac to Mozart, Therapist Judith Pinkerton Uses Music To Help At-risk Youths Turn Anger, Anxiety And Sadness Into More Positive Feelings"

by Tanya Flanagan
Las Vegas Review-Journal
Sunday, August 2, 1998

"The kids I work with are in custody programs and are hardcore kids," Pinkerton said. "We just picked up one for murder and he is only 15 years old. These kids are abused, and they don't want to be in touch with their bodies. But the music therapy gets them back in touch, so that they release their angst and other emotions."

Nedra Armstrong, a supervisor with Family and Youth Services, said the program is positive and interesting, and it works because youngsters are taught how to calm down.

"The whole concept is that you need to match the mood (with the music) in order to express it out, and then you listen to something else to neutralize it," Pinkerton said. "Music is very universal and our specific emotions can be universal, but everybody feels different, and the music that makes you happy may not make me happy."

Pinkerton maps out an individual treatment plan for each of her clients, choosing musical selections reflecting the patients' personality. Jazz may excite some people while classical music uplifts others. She determines clients' needs by having them listen to several selections while writing down their feelings and thoughts. She also reviews the type of music her patients normally listen to and evaluates the kinds of music that affect their demeanor.

While she incorporates various music styles into the sessions, all youths begin with an earful of rapper Tupac Shakur's "Me Against the World" compact disc.

" 'So Many Tears' is the first piece of music they hear from me because he is rap and second because he died in this town, and you have to go to where they are to begin to reach them," she said.

Shakur was shot in a drive-by shooting near the strip after the Sept. 7, 1996, Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon fight at the MGM Grand. He died Sept. 13, 1996, at University Medical Center.

One teen, who asked not to be identified, said the song depressed her and made her think about things she had gone through.

She was born a Siamese twin, connected at the heart to her sibling, who died. Her earliest and most painful memories are of sexual abuse that started when she was 3 and continued until she was 13.

The abuse led her to push away people she knew and those trying to befriend her.

After 10 years of abuse, she was taken from her family and placed at Regina Hall. Many counselors tried - unsuccessfully - to help her, but it was Pinkerton who reached her.

When the two paired up in September, the teen was sad, bored, angry and had a lot of anxiety, Pinkerton said. She repressed her feelings and smiled a lot to conceal pain. At first she doubted the program's ability to work, and her skepticism prevented her from taking the treatment seriously.

"I was scared and confused," the 17-year-old said. "I was mad and had a lot of anxiety toward other people. When I would first meet people, I used to hate them until I got to know them, instead of getting to know them and deciding whether I like them."

In June, she graduated high school, moved out of Regina Hall into her own apartment and was released from Pinkerton's care. She now has a job and is considering taking classes at the Community College of Southern Nevada to become a counselor.

"The program is one of the best things that ever happened to me," she said.

But it wasn't easy convincing her to give therapy a try. At one point she even stopped listening to a series of songs on a tape that Pinkerton had made because the music stirred up uncomfortable memories she wanted to forget.

Marriage and family counselor Cheryl Cornelius helped ease her reluctance. Cornelius is a staff member at the Community College of Southern Nevada who also works at Regina Hall. She began working with the teen around Christmas, and within three weeks, the youth listened to the entire tape.

"The program is absolutely phenomenal," Cornelius said. "I think everyone could benefit from it. People lack an understanding of the concept of how to use music as a tool. In a sense, everybody uses music, they just don't understand the sequencing part of it," she said.

Pinkerton said the therapy is designed so someone in a bad mood can use music to identify their anger, soothe it and shift to more positive feelings.

In the 17-year-old's case, Pinkerton recorded Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People" and Bette Midler's "The Rose" to help the youth deal with her sadness, anger and anxiety. She then neutralized the youth's unsettled feelings with Mozart and used upbeat tunes from the "The Lion King" movie soundtrack to induce a more positive attitude.

Regina Hall Program Manager Gloria Bernal said, "Watching girls go through their individual MEE (Music Exercising Emotion) tapes and going from being very difficult to work with to being more amenable to work with shows that music therapy definitely works."