Speaking louder through song

With guidance from facilitators, around 20 participants from the Singapore Girls' Home wrote music and lyrics for their own songs.
With guidance from facilitators, around 20 participants from the Singapore Girls' Home wrote music and lyrics for their own songs.PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY

In fast-paced Singapore, there are those in need - and those who go out of their way to meet those needs. This is the latest in a series on noteworthy causes that The Straits Times is spotlighting.

It was only through music that Celine (not her real name) was finally able to express her true feelings to her family. And she learnt this as a resident of the Singapore Girls' Home. She said she always struggled with issues at home but suppressed her emotions.

"I love talking to my parents but I had never expressed myself," she said, adding that family issues were too sensitive to broach.

"I never asked the questions that I wanted and needed to ask."

Eventually, they came to a boil and though she was not yet 16, Celine found herself in so much trouble so often, her parents applied for a Beyond Parental Control order and had her placed in the home.

Parents of children below the age of 16, who display behavioural problems in school or at home, can apply for the order, according to the Ministry of Social and Family Development's website.

The home recognises that residents like Celine may be struggling to talk about what pains them. To get girls like Celine to share their emotions, the home selected 20 of the 90 residents to participate in a songwriting programme organised by the Esplanade.

It is one of the performing arts centre's flagship community engagement programmes.

Between October and December last year, Diamonds on the Street, an organisation that works with at-risk communities, guided the girls through the process of songwriting but also worked to tap them for their personal stories.

Celine, who has been a resident for a year, said she did not have high expectations as music lessons she attended in the home were uninspiring. "Music wasn't my thing," she laughed. But she ended up finding hope through the programme.

  • Songwriting for Hope

  • The Esplanade's community engagement programme reaches out to voluntary welfare organisations in Singapore to offer workshops and visits to the centre.

    Its efforts benefit more than 10,000 beneficiaries.

    Songwriting for Hope is a three-month workshop conducted for at-risk youth.

    It has been run twice, once for AG Home, a residential home for teenage girls, and once for the Singapore Girls' Home.

    There are plans to run the workshop for participants from the Singapore Girls' Home two more times - this year and next year.

    They also have one-off workshops, such as Angklung lessons for seniors in 16 different activity centres ahead of Pesta Raya, a Malay festival of arts.

    The Esplanade launched a public fundraiser, Mural of Dreams, last month to help fund its community engagement programmes.

    Members of the public can contribute by paying for mosaic tiles that will be affixed to an art mural designed by mosaic artist Nanette Zehnder. The mural will be installed at the Esplanade's Annexe Studio.

    Around $100,000 has been raised through the Mural of Dreams so far. Donations can be made online or on Fridays and weekends at the Esplanade from 3pm to 9pm. The fundraiser will end on July 23.

    Abigail Ng

Over the course of 10 sessions, participants from the residential home were given the space and time to reflect on the events and relationships in their lives.

With the help of facilitators, they then wrote lyrics and music using the GarageBand app on iPads.

Celine's song was short and sweet - 11 lines long. But it communicated a wealth of emotion to her family.

Celine had been living apart from her parents and words sometimes failed them. She had been hurt by their words and by what seemed like preferential treatment for her sister, but never asked why.

"I finally let it go and expressed myself in this song. I know that they heard it this time," she said.

She wrote: "I wanted you to see that I didn't hate you, but instead I wanted to thank you for everything."

The song was dedicated to her sister to thank her for standing by her.

After listening to the song, her family did not talk about it because "it was hard to talk about", but Celine said it felt good that they understood her.

The Esplanade's head of community engagement, Ms Grace Low, said the aim of such programmes is to improve the participants' self-esteem and provide creative outlets.

"Through artistic expression, we hope they realise the value in their life experiences and feel empowered to turn it into hope for the future," she said.

Participants were selected for their interest in the performing arts but, for Celine, the workshop was more than just about songwriting.

During the last session, facilitators and participants took turns to give each other "positive words" - and the waterworks started.

"They told me things that I didn't know about myself and told me to press on," she said.

Another participant, Amira (not her real name), 16, said the relationships were not simply "facilitator-participant". "It was a friendship with trust," she said. "We bonded and it felt like a family."

Amira had written songs before the workshop, but the hobby held both good and bad memories.

Writing songs helped her to reflect and unwind, but when she shared her compositions with friends previously, their responses discouraged her.

During the workshop last year, she struggled with sharing her work and singing in the presence of other participants.

"I kept avoiding it until one of the facilitators encouraged me to just do it at my comfort level, even if I have to sit in a corner away from everyone else," she said. "I saw that she was making an effort to make me try, so I did."

She also wrote her first English song while in the home, having written only Malay songs before.

Titled Hold On, it was about the strength she saw in her fellow residents of the Home. "It's a difficult time, being away from our families, isolated from the world," she said.

Founder of Diamonds on the Street and singer-songwriter Crystal Goh said the songwriting process helped the girls value their experiences, albeit painful.

It also helped them develop a more nuanced understanding of their struggles and victories.

"This gives them the freedom to accept themselves and to extend this acceptance to their loved ones," Ms Goh said.

Though Celine has not written more songs since the workshop, Beautiful, Mysterious, the song she wrote for her family, has helped to rebuild the relationship.

"I want to work towards making them proud again. I'm really dedicated to doing it now."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2017, with the headline 'Speaking louder through song'. Print Edition | Subscribe