Harmonica virtuoso Mike Stevens can’t read a note of music. Instead, he sees sounds as colors, a condition known as synesthesia. That, he tells students at Nenana School, is his superpower.
Stevens returns to Nenana School every year, helping students learn to tell their own stories through music and to express their feelings in healthy ways.
“I play emotions,” Stevens told the teens.
This year, he had some help. Marc Brown, of Huslia, toured with him. Brown, of Marc Brown & the Blues Crew, is a well known Native American musician, recently nominated for his second national Native American Music Award. He had never been on a tour like this before, specifically visiting with young people and helping them heal from trauma through music, composing, dance and drumming. He found it inspiring.
“Music has been like a healer for me,” Brown told a roomful of teens. “I had a rough upraising. I didn’t have a dad. If it wasn’t for music, I probably wouldn’t be here.”
Both musicians were able to show students how they musically express emotions — happy, sad, even mad.
Considering they met for the first time just a week earlier, the two musicians made a good team. When they played together in the school gymnasium, students sitting on the bleachers couldn’t sit still. Heads bobbed and feet tapped. At other rural villages, the audience often left their seats for impromptu dancing during their concert.
On this tour, the duo also traveled to Galena, Nulato, Koyukuk and Huslia, and Family Centered Services in Fairbanks and Nenana School. Nearly 100 teens from all over the state attend Nenana School while living at the Nenana Student Living Center.
Nenana teacher Eric Filardi, who helps coordinate the Nenana visits, said the value of the musical mentoring is invaluable.
“The way that Mike Stevens works with expression through harmonica playing and music ignites all areas of students’ development of self-expression,” Filardi said. “Through his story, musical talent and passion, Mike helps our students to realize that authentic expression is not about trying to impress others; it is about being ourselves and amplifying our positive connections with those who support us. His continued support of our Nenana students has manifested in hugs, giant smiles, and joy that spread through our school in Pied-Piper fashion every time he walks through our doors.”
Brown said it was powerful to work with students in this way.
“It was nice to be able to share my story with some of these kids,” he said. “Some are going through what I went through. I could tell by the look in their eyes that we were helping them.”
Stevens has been sharing music with indigenous youth since 1999.
This Healing Through Music and Dance Program is under the umbrella of the Bethel Community Services Foundation and is the result of support from numerous organizations including Tanana Chiefs Conference, Alaska Community Foundation/GCI, Goldstream Engineering, Alaska Airlines, Wright Air, Sophie Stations and many individuals.