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South Jordan Journal

Upcoming middle school concert begins talk of mental illness, seeking support

May 08, 2023 01:58PM ● By Julie Slama

Elk Ridge Middle School band students, under the direction of teacher Chris Lyon, will play songs from “The unBroken Project” about mental illness as part of their spring concert. (Photo courtesy of Bell Photography)

Through music, artists evoke emotions, commonly of dreaminess and sadness. In this spring’s band concert, Elk Ridge Middle School students will not only convey feelings of joy, but of anxiety and uncertainty.

The core pieces of their concert are from a yet to-be-completed collection of songs entitled “The unBroken Project,” composed by Randall Standridge, who is “open with his depression and anxiety in his life,” Chris Lyon said, Elk Ridge Middle’s band teacher.

During the spring concert, each band will play one song from the series that focuses on different aspects of mental health. Symphonic Band will play “(not) Alone,” concert band will perform “Blue Sky Horizon,” and beginning band will conclude the concert with “Fragile.” Those first-year players will be joined by players from the other two bands.

“Having 150 kids on the stage, saying they’re a community in themselves, is going to be a really neat experience for them,” Lyon said.

“’Blue Sky Horizon’ celebrates the good days when you’re not struggling with mental health; everybody has their days when they wake up and say, ‘it’s going to be a great day.’ ‘(not) Alone’ centers on understanding there’s a community and support available to those who need the help. The song starts with a solo and then the whole band joins in as a sign of support. As the song wraps up, it goes back into the solo before the band rallies around them at the end; the whole idea is they are not alone. ‘Fragile’ is about the bad days and that yes, sometimes we’re going to have bad days and there’s nothing that we can do to make that day better — but we have tools to persevere and get through that bad day,” he said.

Lyon is part a group chat with Standridge and other directors and teachers. The Elk Ridge teacher selected the pieces for a couple reasons.

“I have an anxiety disorder. I’ve had it since I was a kid, but back when I was a kid, that wasn’t a thing. The attitude was ‘You deal with it. Get up, you’re fine, move on.’  It wasn’t until I was about 30 that my doctor and I worked together, figured out I have anxiety disorder and I had never been diagnosed. In the last 10 years, I’ve come up with strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with my anxiety,” Lyon said, adding that calming music or tightening and releasing his muscles helps him. “This music resonated with me because of the struggles I’ve had over the years, and I want to give my students an opportunity to explore the more vulnerable sides of our lives.”

He said for many, mental illness has a stigma.

“We keep it to ourselves, and a lot of times that is to our detriment. It’s not good, not healthy. My goal with this is to open the lines of communication. I’m hoping that if students are hesitant to talk to their parents about this, we’ll talk now,” Lyon said.

Before embarking on the project, he shared his plan with administration and parents. He wants conversations to be open about anxiety, depression and other disorders people are experiencing.

“I’m hoping there are conversations with parents and their kids, and from student to student. They should be sharing experiences with each other as a wonderful support group. I also want them to be able to communicate with me as their teacher, their other teachers, or their school counselors,” Lyon said. “I want parents to feel comfortable enough to approach me saying, ‘my child is struggling with this; what can we do to tweak their education in a way that will help them mentally?’ The whole point is ‘how can we help our kids?’”

During the process, Lyon invited the school counselors to discuss mental illness strategies with his students and how to build a community.

“The truth is mental health is big. Suicide at this age level is out of control and it breaks my heart. I’m hopeful by tackling this project, that maybe I can help one or two students survive high school and beyond,” he said. “By doing this, I want to give them the tools that they can learn to manage this because it isn’t something you’re going to get over. These are lifelong struggles, but they can have a group here to support them.” 

The concert is at 7 p.m., May 16 and is free to the community. It will be livestreamed, with a link on the Elk Ridge performing arts Facebook page. The music was purchased with a $300 school PTA teacher grant. 

Usually, for the spring concert, Lyon has students play fun, movie theme songs or radio pop tunes — which although is not the focus, he is adding to support the themes.

“This is a very mature concert we’re doing,” he said. “When I told them, they were all in. We listened to the music. We’ve talked about why we’re doing this, and they all wanted to do this. I think more of our kids are struggling more than we know. I think a lot of kids suffer in silence like I did. For those kids, this is going to be a good lifeline.”

Standridge, who used to be a secondary school band director, wrote the songs for student-musicians.

“This is all at their level, technically. Emotionally, it may be a stretch,” Lyon said. “I think this concert is more about mental development and personal development. I want each kid to have their own personal experience with the music and for them to let the music affect them the way they need.  They’re going to learn about music; they’re going to become better musicians and be able to play with more passion, with more emotion.”

The songs were written in 2022 as life resumed after the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine.

“I strongly feel that someone in my classroom needs this right now, so we’re doing it now. Or maybe it’s me that needs it; I don’t know. I just feel the sense of urgency,” said Lyon, who has taught for 16 years. “I’ve had a few students tell me this has resonated with them. I’ve had several parents reach out to me privately, in support of what we’re doing and have been appreciative that I’m getting the conversation started. I want to make my classroom a safe place, a refuge. I want kids to know they can talk about what they need to talk about, that they’re going to be safe from bullying and harassment. My classroom is a safe place to make mistakes and to get help.”λ