Nashville Nonprofit is Teaching Teens To Write Music, Sing, and Soar

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Some of the biggest stars in music are women. But look deeper and a reality comes into focus: women are far underrepresented across nearly every level of the business.

A study from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California found that just two percent of popular music producers are women. When it comes to songwriters, the initiative counted just under 15% to be women. Year after year, it’s largely men who make up Grammy award nominees across categories.

The numbers aren’t news to people like Jen Starsinic, a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who grew up playing fiddle and violin in Pennsylvania before studying music in Boston and moving to Nashville to be a professional singer and songwriter.  

The lack of representation is a major reason why Starsinic and a musician friend, Georgia English, in 2017 co-founded Girls Write Nashville, a nonprofit that offers free mentorship and education in songwriting and music production to middle and high-school girls from low-income communities in Davidson County. Over 20-week semesters, girls in the Nashville area learn from professional musicians — building not only career skills but self-confidence and friendships — in the program that culminates with an original compilation CD and record release show.

While it's ostensibly a music mentorship, Girls Write Nashville is really about so much more. 

So while music is the method, Girls Write Nashville’s bigger goal is to help foster healthier, happier teen leaders in its community, inside school and out of it.

Compared to boys of the same age, teens girls report greater drops in self confidence and are more likely to experience cyber-bullying. Last year, the U.S. Surgeon General warned of a “devastating” mental health crisis among youth that hit adolescent girls the hardest, including a significant year-to-year rise in suicide attempts.

So while music is the method, Girls Write Nashville’s bigger goal is to help foster healthier, happier teen leaders in its community, inside school and out of it. 

There’s “the all-too-familiar crash in confidence that girls experience in adolescence and lack of communal attention,” Starsinic says. There’s “the lack of meaningful arts education in Nashville, where perhaps many programs in ‘Music City’ are dominated by an industry-focused approach. And there is the continued segregation in the city between races, between neighborhoods, between cultures, and between the music industry and the people who grow up here.” 

All issues are ones that Girls Write Nashville, which despite its location goes far beyond country music in its styles, hopes to tackle.

“Some students find us because they are so passionate about writing songs and making music and they're already playing and writing but don't have any community around that,” says Starsinic. Others, she says, are referred by school counselors after facing social isolation or undergoing difficult life experiences.

“In working with our students, we see plainly how many if not all of us face difficult experiences and chronic stress in our lives and the power of creating community around a shared passion with a group of people with whom we can be open and expressive,” she says. “Some just hear that the program is a good environment and are trying to find a space that will be sympathetic where they can make friends.”

Girls Write Nashville is open to teens who identify as girls as well as those whose gender identity is nonbinary. In addition to the progressive outlooks program leaders and teens have on gender, the organization also doesn’t follow traditional ideas on music education.

Photo Credit: Girls Write Nashville

“Traditional recitation-based techniques force students to learn a particular kind of music to then repeat. Students in our program make all different kinds of music. This approach is informed by my background as an improvisatory musician, often learning music from ear and from playing with others rather than reading and reciting it and then learning how to quickly translate concepts across different instruments,” Starsinic says. 

Starsinic, who developed her musical tastes by watching TV, listening to CDs and tuning into the radio, says the teens she encounters often pick up music instead from viral TikTok videos or movie soundtracks.

One of our favorite funny things is having intergenerational music conversations between mentors and youth artists. Often we're only 15 or less years apart in age but really don't know any of the same bands or artists,” she says.

“Some students are recent immigrants and are excited to engage in music from their home country and we always welcome students to write in whatever language they'd like. More than anything, our student body is diverse so their cultural and personal experiences with music are very different and come from many places. One of our core values is to celebrate these diverse experiences, express a unique voice, and not use art-making as a tool to enforce a dominant culture.”

Tags: music, teen, Inspiration

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JD Turner

JD Turner is a writer and puppy parent based in Los Angeles. See Full Bio

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