We sat down with John Morabito, Music Director of the music program at Phoenix House Academy in Los Angeles in Lake View Terrace, CA to learn more about the benefits of a music studio in a substance abuse treatment setting. Always effortlessly cool, he took us behind the scenes in the studio.
Phoenix House: Let’s begin with some background information. What kind of experience do you have in your field?
John Morabito: I’ve been engineering for over 30 years and have been working with music and teens for the past eight years. I previously worked at two other group homes where I built recording studios like what we have here at Phoenix House.
PH: How did you end up at Phoenix House and what drew you here?
JM: The last facility where I was working closed and I stumbled upon a job fair that Phoenix House was hosting. As soon as I received the info that Kara DioGuardi had built a studio at Phoenix House and there may be an opening for a music director, I called immediately.
PH: Describe a typical workday for you at Phoenix House.
JM: The first part of the day is for business. I have meetings, respond to emails, contact organizations who support us and those with whom I am trying build relations. I also edit and mix songs. Several songs are recorded per day because I see all of our clients every week. Sessions normally begin at 3:30pm, for the clients are in school until that time. They have a dinner break in the early evening and then I have them again until night time.
Most of the lyrics they write are composed during the day, so when they come to the studio, we work on beats and loops and find something that will work with the lyrics they wrote. When the client leaves we put all the songs on a CD for them to take home with them.
PH: What is it like working with teens?
JM: I love it. It’s one of the best experiences of my life. I [pause, deep sigh] had a client here in the studio just yesterday. He was with his therapist, listening to a song that he recorded. While listening to the song the therapist asked the client about the situations he had written. And to see this client, who does not sleep at night but stays up writing his thoughts and has a heavy, deep past, sit right here, covering his eyes, saying to us, “I never ever cry,” with tears just pouring down his face, is poignant. He’s able to finally speak about his past in his raps without being judged and you’re sitting there, stunned. When you come into this room, you are not judged, so clients feel safe to get all that stuff out. When I saw that happen yesterday, it was almost like there was a checkmark beside my name because what I am doing in here works. This is the outlet that these teens need. The thanks I receive come not from staff but from the teens who have used musical therapy as a means of reducing anxiety and depression.
PH: Wow. That is heavy stuff.
JM: The therapist was really, really impressed that his client found the outlet to help him move forward. He’s using this studio for what it was built for. Here we have teens from different cities, nationalities, and situations who all use this studio for the same reason, which is to lighten the load that they carry.
PH: What have you learned from working with teens?
JM: Some of them have had only had fifteen birthdays, overdosed on drugs and have next to no love at home. Their friends want them to get high. I’ve learned that as tough as they are, they get happy with the same things I get happy with. They cry at the same things I cry at. But they’re human, yet they’ve gone through so much. They’ve experienced so much for a being so young.
PH: What kinds of lessons do you teach the teens?
JM: Probably the main thing I try to tell them is: I believe in them and I care about them. They matter. Their opinion counts and they can do it. Many times you have to continually tell them, “I believe in you, you can do it.” And to a certain point, let them know you can trust them. Those are the things they say they don’t have. I try to plant little seeds that someone does care about them, believes in their future, and instill in them that they’re worth it.
I also teach them the basic studio protocol. Some learn how to rap or sing, others learn how to play guitar or piano.
PH: What do you hope the youth learn from working with you at the end of the day?
JM: I hope they learn that they’re worth it, they’re accepted, and they’re good at what they do. I hope they feel satisfied at the end of the day. I want them to use music as therapy to unearth and cope with their feelings. I want them to have a better outlook on life.
PH: What do you think allows our clients to find solace in coming here and why?
JM: First of all, this room is so relaxing and inviting. Simply walking through the doors is peaceful. Once the clients wake up they begin a very busy day. In here, everything halts and it’s quiet. It gives them time to replenish themselves while listening to music.
PH: What do you find most enjoyable about working with adolescents in the academy?
JM: It’s always something new and you never know what you are going to get from day to day. They keep me young. I enjoy what I do, as much as they enjoy coming here. I love to see the joy on their faces when they walk in. I get to hand everyone a gift every day. Here’s an hour in the studio, here’s your favorite song to listen to, or it’s now your turn to sing or rap. In turn, they’re able to gain a deeper self-understanding whether they’re using music as therapy or better pinpointing their feelings for their therapist. I love seeing a difference in these teens’ lives.
PH: What could you say have been some of your biggest accomplishments at Phoenix House?
JM: Winning 1st place in the Grammy Contest which is hosted annually by Music Cares. Also, I received a phone call from a past client who has remained sober after leaving here. He just put out his first video and is constantly in the studio recording his music. He always tells me how the music program at Phoenix House changed his life.
PH: What makes working at a music studio so awesome?
JM: I found my bliss in life. This is my passion and I get to do something that I love every day.
PH: Does it feel like work?
JM: No, it doesn’t. At all.
PH: Since your job deals with music, what kind of music do you listen to?
JM: I like RnB, love songs, electronic, dub step. I am not a rap lover.
PH: Where do you see this program in five years?
JM: We’ll have one in San Diego, Venice. And eventually have someone take over this one, and I will oversee all of them. I want to build at least one studio a year with Kara. It is such a huge part of the recovery process.
If you or someone you love needs help dealing with substance abuse, please do not hesitate to call us at 1 888 671 9392.