Lifelines: The Teachings of Teenagers
In the first 10 years of my career as a touring singer-songwriter, besides the odd songwriting workshop here and there, I didn’t really have many opportunities to interact with youth. Most of my shows were in bars/clubs/theatres and the audience demographic tended to be mostly adults. Through a series of serendipitous events however, my songs found their way to the creators of this 12-day program for teens in the mountains of Alberta called F.A.C.E.S. (Facilitating Awareness Through Character Building Experiences for Students) where they take the students hiking, rock-climbing, whitewater canoeing, and rapelling. The goal of the program is not really for the students to become skilled at those activities, but more so they learn what it’s like to do something they’re afraid of, something they didn’t think they could do, and then through processing, draw parallels between those experiences and their ‘real life’ challenges and goals. In conjunction with these activities, the students are guided through an incredible curriculum over the 12 days. Unbeknownst to me, they had been using some of my songs as part of that curriculum to anchor the learning. I only found out when I performed in Fort Macleod Alberta four years ago (a town I had never played before) and it was packed with people who knew all my songs! After that night, the people who ran F.A.C.E.S. invited me to come work with the program, which I agreed to do, subsequently returning every summer. I even became the session leader last year for two of the eight sessions. That work has become one of the most meaningful things that I do and provides a much-needed ‘recalibration’ from my music career.
After a few years of working with F.A.C.E.S., I came to understand the bridge between my music and how it can connect with youth. Through another series of natural evolutions, I began to give talks here and there. This morphed into a whole new calling in my life: giving regular keynote addresses in many settings including schools, youth conferences, corporate events, and beyond. These days I’m so proud that I’m able to have this multi-faceted career where I not only continue my regular touring and songwriting as an artist, but I also get to speak to youth as well as do my mentoring work in the summer.
I find it interesting that my music career is actually thriving more than ever. It’s exciting, I’m selling out bigger and bigger venues, attracting new industry partners, and my songs are getting significant traction on radio, etc. even though I’ve seemingly been splitting my time and energy with these other pursuits. As I was sitting here thinking about it though, something dawned on me: even though from the outside, doing this other work may seem like a distraction from my music career; I believe that the interaction with youth over the last few years has been essential in helping me evolve as a writer/performer and is a big part of some of my most successful years on the music side of things. I say this because I feel that working with youth reconnects me to the ‘source’ of WHY I do what I do. When I’m working with them, I’m not thinking about how a particular song will do on the radio, or what my press photos need to look like, or strategizing about the timing of a single release or what the market will think of a particular style-shift or video, etc. All of that strategic thinking disappears and there’s a return to the essence of what I love about songwriting and why I was drawn to it in the first place. And, there’s a fundamental truth I tap into as a writer/performer in order to connect with youth because their ‘honesty-meter’ is so high. Questions like: “What do I need to say?” “How does it land?” “What does it mean to me?” “What does it mean to someone else?” “Why do I create?” “How do I create?” “What do I find inspiring?” “What lessons have I learned along the way?” Those are the questions that become relevant in my interactions with youth, because those questions are the language of exploration, of discovery, of dreaming, and that’s exactly the language or vibrational level that youth operate on. Working with them is a reminder of what’s important, of what’s really going on at a basic human level, because they operate with much less of a filter than adults, less of a protective layer. That’s part of what makes them so special. In my work at F.A.C.E.S., I do see the beginnings of a protective layer, especially on the first day of every session. They’re all 15/16 years old, part kid, part adult, and the early shells have started to form. They’re self-consciously hiding behind a pair of sunglasses, or a pulled-down ball cap, or a hoodie over their head. But that protective layer is still thin enough that when you simply listen to them, get curious, show them that they’re safe, show them that they’re loved, and give them your presence, then the sunglasses come off, the ball cap over the eyes gets lifted, the hoodie pulled back, and their eyes light up and they drop in. They’re vulnerable, open, dream-filled, and downright inspiring. They tap into their inner kid again, their beautiful idealism, their confidence. They surprise themselves, and they surprise us adults around them.
Do you remember that time in life when you were young and you were sure you had some things all figured out? Of course there were many things that you didn’t know then, but there were also some important things that you DID know, that as you shifted into adulthood, got lost along the way. Working with youth for me is a lifeline back to all the good parts of that innocent feeling of ‘I can do anything’, that ability to dream, to learn, to re-invent, to see the infinite possibility that lies ahead…and I consider it a privilege that I get to be taught by them every time I’m around them.