Making Music to Connect with Teens In Custody

Posted on August 16, 2023

Bethany Uhler Thompson teaching violin
Bethany Uhler Thompson teaching violin

For Bethany Uhler Thompson (’20 DMA and ’17 MM Cello Performance) music is a connector and an instrument for change, both of which are needed in her music classes at Les Peters Academy and Hillsborough Girls Academy in Tampa, Florida.

“When the girls come into class, they’re very unsure of their abilities, and a lot of them will tell me that they’ve had people in their past say they can’t succeed. They’ve been told they’re a failure and that they can’t do good things in life. And that’s their mindset as they approach these instruments.”

Les Peters and Hillsborough Girls Academies aren’t elite girls’ schools—they are facilities in the Florida Juvenile Justice system and Thompson directs the strings program there for girls ages 14-18 who are incarcerated by court order.

She doesn’t just direct the program, she founded it.

The seed was planted when, as a teenager, Thompson played her cello at a detention center as part of an outreach program. It was her first exposure to being inside a locked facility.

“What grew from that was a desire to use music to connect with people in difficult seasons of life. When I was at the UNCG School of Music, I was still trying to figure out how I could use music to impact people in vulnerable situations. I learned about a violin and cello program in an Alaska women’s prison, and I thought I could do that with young people.”

Thompson decided to do her doctoral research on the benefits of music for youth in detention centers.

“UNCG laid a great foundation for me. The School of Music has great faculty. My cello professor Dr. Alex Ezerman was such a huge support. He was my sounding board for all of the triumphs and challenges of the process. He gave me so much freedom to do this. There are some who would try to deter me, saying this is never going to work, and I ran into a lot of walls along the way. But Dr. Ezerman just kept helping me think of ways to make it happen.”

And it did happen. Thompson founded and directed Chatham Strings, teaching violin and cello to teens in custody and performing with them at universities and juvenile justice events across North Carolina, and her research has been published in the String Research Journal. COVID-19 stalled the program in North Carolina, and Thompson started the program up in Florida where she now resides.

“It’s really such a rare thing to have a strings program in these types of facilities,” says Thompson. “Most of the arts programming in prisons use guitars or drums. When the kids come into class the first day, some don’t even know what a cello is, some call the violins ‘little guitars,’ and they refer to them as ‘too fancy’ for them to play. Cellos and violins are associated with classical music which has this reputation of being elite. To so many of these girls, classical music is like a foreign country. It’s a really deep dive for them into another world.

“A big thing we always talk about in class is not quitting. Just keep trying, and that does pay off because these kids are smart. It’s just a matter of concentration and focus. A lot of them pick it up very quickly and are incredibly surprised at themselves. But of course, the instruments are complex. They’re difficult so it really does challenge their perseverance and their willingness to keep working at it.”

Thompson says that an important part of the program is giving concerts for peers, parents, and staff because it gives the students a sense of accomplishment.

“My students in the Chatham Springs program came to UNCG twice—they performed in my final doctoral recital, and they gave their own concert in Tew Recital Hall, which Dr. Ezerman facilitated. Members of the Greensboro Symphony, of which I was a part, worked with them as well, and the students also performed at Bennett College and at juvenile justice events statewide. For some of my students, the most exciting thing was to step foot on a college campus.”

The concerts are meaningful for the parents, too.

“Some of the parents have said to me they’ve always wanted their children to be involved in something good and positive, and they’re devastated about where they are right now, in this detention facility. But then they see and hear their child playing the violin or cello and they are so moved by what they’re learning and so surprised to see them succeeding in this realm that they just cry throughout the concerts. I see younger siblings at concerts who suddenly want to play the violin like their big sister. It’s so rewarding to see this shift for the families.”

Thompson sees a positive change in the way the students think too:

“These kids have experienced a lot in their life—sometimes it was because of their own choices, sometimes it’s the things that have happened to them. One of the girls said to me recently that she’s always felt like she can’t do anything right, but ‘I’ve just proved those people wrong. I learned to play the violin.’ They are starting to realize they have more options in life than they thought they had. They feel like if they can be successful in this unfamiliar realm then is there anything they can’t do? That is an incredible takeaway.

“It’s so rewarding. I really love these kids. I care about them so much, and it is. It’s a huge privilege to work with them and despite all the challenges, there’s so much joy in it.”

Story by Terri W Relos

Photos provided by Bethany Thompson

About the UNCG School of Music

Long recognized as one of the top music institutions in the United States, the UNCG School of Music offers the only comprehensive degrees in music education and music performance in the State of North Carolina, from the undergraduate level through doctoral study. Our outstanding facilities, world-class faculty, and numerous ensemble experiences foster an environment of artistic and academic success.


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