Royal Oak Alternative School

Burnaby , BC


“Having music therapy available to our students at Royal Oak has been enriching to our program. At Royal Oak we have some of the most vulnerable students in our school district. Being able to access their creative potential in a safe and nurturing environment has had noticeable positive effects on the anxiety levels and mental health of our students.” 

David Greve

Learning Pathways Principal

The school district of Burnaby Learning Pathways programs provide alternate school opportunities for students who do not fit in mainstream schools due to a wide variety of issues such as behavioural and mental health.

The music therapy program at Royal Oak Alternate High School is a well-attended, appreciated and important part of the program offered. At Royal Oak school the music therapy program provides 6 – 10 individual music therapy sessions per week. These sessions often center around music listening and reflection, song-writing and recording, instrumental instruction and improvisation and beat/song production. All of the sessions and work start first by building relationships with the students, and gaining trust and rapport.

The music therapist also leads short guided relaxations to music at their monthly afternoon group meetings.

The funding for external programs is very limited, and the program would not be able to run without the help of Music Heals donors.


The students who attend Royal Oak often come from a wide variety of home-environments and have a wide variety of reasons for being asked to leave mainstream schools and attend Royal Oak.
Some of the barriers that Royal Oak students face include time in the foster and criminal justice systems, parents who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, poverty, racial discrimination, mental health and substance issues, abuse or neglect, have recently immigrated and are struggling to find a place in Canadian society.

Despite all these layers of marginalization and barriers to education, these students are often highly resilient, empathetic and fiercely loyal. They are between the ages of 15 – 19 years old and identify as male, female and gender non-conforming.

How does Music Therapy uniquely address the needs of clients at Royal Oak?

The students attending Royal Oak have often been institutionalized, and have spent a great deal of time interacting with “the system.” This means they have met social workers, counsellors, parole officers, physiatrists etc and are often resistant to and hesitant to connect with yet another “professional” adult. They are also often resistant to talk-therapy and have been pathologized often for their whole school careers.

Offering them a safe-space where they can simply sit and listen to music with a caring and supportive adult is a breathe of fresh air. They can connect and build a relationship with a positive adult in a non-judgemental or pathologizing way.

Music also allows for students to express themselves in a very direct way. Many teenagers are struggling with their identity and struggling with self-expression and self-confidence. Singing, playing instruments and writing songs/raps are great way to express themselves in a safe manner. They can get their difficult emotions out through singing songs that match their internal world, and the music therapist can then support and normalize these feelings.

Additionally, in sharing music that represents their youth’s culture with the music therapist, they become the expert and the holder of knowledge. They are given autonomy to direct the session, and the freedom to show their interests and who they are. These youth have spent so much time in the system that they are disenfranchised and often do not have the opportunity to show their own strengths and knowledge. This opportunity can give them confidence and make them feel seen and heard.

How has COVID-19 impacted the program?

COVID’s suspension of school impacted music therapy for 14 weeks of suspended in-person music therapy programming.

Most students don’t have access to a computer with a working camera
The students have a great deal going on in their lives, and it is hard for them to organize and get to a session on time
The students are already hesitant to trust and connect at the best of times, and the added disconnection of the telehealth session meant it was hard for students to connect and build their relationship

Despite these challenges, music therapist Felicia was able to connect with one student on a semi-regular basis over the 14 weeks. They had 5 telehealth sessions over this period and were able to connect and build a relationship through learning about music theory, listening to favourite songs and playing guitar.

Currently Royal Oak School has only budgeted 2.5 hours of music therapy per week; however, with your support, they will be able to provide a full school-day of music therapy programming (an extra 2.5 hours per week).

This allows for 3-5 more students seen per week, so 102 -170 more sessions per school year. Because of the high needs of the students, the majority of the sessions are held individually. Approximately one session per week is held with more than one student at a time.

There is a high demand amongst the students for the available sessions each week, so the 2.5 hours of extra time from your funding allows for most of the students who are interested to attend sessions on a weekly basis.

*James is a student with a past in the criminal justice system and a difficult home life. He also struggles with academics and has some learning disabilities. Though he has regular attendance, he is not able to focus for an entire block of school. Music is something that he was always drawn to, but never had formal lessons in. He tried the piano with the music therapist, and has learned very fast. He is memorizing and playing complicated songs with incredible accuracy.

His brain connects with music in a very concrete way, as he is able to learn quickly. Piano gives him an outlet for creativity as well as a way to boost his confidence and be proud of what he has accomplished. The teachers and students give him praise for his piano skills, and he is able to showcase something he is good at while at school, which boosts his self-esteem. Music therapy has been an incredibly important part of his week, as it gives his brain a change of scene, and he is able to focus more on work after the music sessions.

*Name changed for confidentiality

Felicia Wall

“I have been a certified music therapist working in the Vancouver area since 2015. I work from a strengths-based model of practice, in which I place a high value on the therapeutic relationship. I work mainly with youth and adults who have been marginalized from society and who have experienced poverty, drug addiction, discrimination, abuse and mental health issues. Music therapy is a powerful tool for connection, expression and healing in these contexts, and I am constantly struck by how impactful this work is for clients.”

You can help us reach more Canadians with the healing power of music. We invite you to give the gift of music to provide hope, strength, relief and encouragement to Canadians in need.

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