Sing Me a Story: Musical Therapy for the 21st Century

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Like so many legendary songs and albums before his time, Austin Atteberry’s story begins with a girl. But this tale is not one of woe, no modern record of heartache like Adele’s 21 or Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Instead, Atteberry’s story is one for the greater good; it helped create the Sing Me A Story Foundation.

The year: 2010. The setting: Nashville’s Sylvan Park neighborhood.

“This girl moved in next door to me and she happened to work at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital as a Child Life Specialist,” said Atteberry. “She also happened to be beautiful, and she encouraged me to volunteer at Vanderbilt Children’s as a Music Therapy Volunteer. I’m not an idiot, so of course I did.”

Atteberry didn’t always plan on working with kids, or even in hospitals. He grew up in greater Chicago where he studied classical voice and musical theater, and he also played in bands throughout grade school. By the time he graduated from Northwestern in 2006, he was on track to become a professional musician. Atteberry, a multi-instrumentalist who sings, plays guitar and drums, and “can get by on piano,” worked a stint at the Recording Academy and moved to Nashville to pursue music publishing in 2008.

Publishing didn’t exactly work out, but Nashville did offer Atteberry other gratifying songwriting opportunities. While volunteering at the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, Atteberry brought his guitar to serenade the kids and help them explore their creative capacities.

“I’m a songwriter,” he said, “so I walk into a room and say, ‘let’s write a song.’ When you ask a five-year-old kid to write a song, they look at you like you’re crazy. So I said, ‘Alright, tell me a story about anything you want.’ Now if you ask a five-year-old kid to tell you a story about anything they want, the floodgates open.”

By asking children to use their imaginations to tell stories, Atteberry was able to literally and figuratively strike a chord with them.

“We had stories about monsters in the closet and dad came in to save the day, boys versus girls and boys drool and girls rule,” he said. “You can just imagine the amount of crazy stories we’d get and we’d turn them into songs. And then when I could, I’d come home and I’d…record it on my Mac with Garageband and send the mp3 to the music therapist at Vanderbilt Children’s and she’d put it on a CD and give it to the kid and the family.”

Atteberry found that his seemingly small musical contributions made a huge impact on the children and their families during the medical processes. Not only did the storytelling experiences help the kids expand their creative reach, the resulting songs served as permanent reminders of positivity and inspiration.

“When you’re in a hospital room and you have a kid that is really going through a tough time and so is Mom and Dad and you can play a song, which for three minutes takes everybody away from that room, then I really learned about what music is and the power of music,” he said. “Because as they say, music heals.”

Atteberry soon realized that this type of program could be expanded and adapted to more than just the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospitals; children all around the world the world could benefit from this form of music therapy. So, the Sing Me a Story Foundation launched in January 2011.

Now a 501©(3) recognized charity, Sing Me a Story uses the connectivity of the digital realm to match children’s stories with songwriters around the world. Using its website as the central networking point, Sing Me a Story works with 12 international orphanages to get children to tell stories and post their words or illustrations online. Then, musicians from anywhere in the world can download the stories, write songs inspired by them and upload the tunes back onto the site. The music is then accessible for the children, their families and host organizations.

Sing Me a Story is in the process of establishing partnerships with 45 more organizations and is continually seeking musicians and volunteers. From amateur to professional and encompassing all genres, Sing Me a Story encourages all who considers themselves songwriters to contribute, although Atteberry divulged with a laugh that he would love to have stars like Dave Matthews, Bono, and Vince Gill participate.

“My big goal was to basically get a microphone to those in our world that so often become voiceless and connect the machine that is our music industry…to people that have never had a microphone—those kids in hospitals and orphanages around the world,” said Atteberry.

And as for the girl, Sara Doschadis and Atteberry co-founded Sing Me a Story together and he proposed to her last year. She, of course, accepted.

Learn more and participate at Sing Me a Story.