Beat of Life uses music to help children in crisis

Friday, March 27, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 13
By Hollie Deese

The Beat of Life

The Beat of Life provides therapeutic songwriting and music programs to Nashville’s most vulnerable, challenged, and hurting populations by bringing together and utilizing talent and resources available in Nashville. For more information see

Jeni Dominelli knows what it feels like to be on the outside of society. After her father committed a high-profile white collar crime in San Diego in the 1980s, her childhood was at the same time shattered and thrown in the spotlight. Her family’s money was gone, the media had a field day and her father was sent to prison.

“We went from being a multi-millionaire family to not knowing how we would pay our rent,” she says. “And of course, visiting my dad in prison and have the whole world know about it. Luckily it was pre-social media days, but that really, deeply affected me.”

Dominelli turned to music during this time, especially when she was a teenager.

“Music had always been the thing that had pulled me out of some of the depths of the places I went,” she explains. “I would listen to a song on auto repeat to try to get myself in a better place. I was using songs as my own personal therapy. My sister and I grew up together using music as our therapy, as our escape.”

Bridging music with social work

As hard as it was, it was also during the many visits she took to see her father in prison over the course of a dozen years that actually steered Dominelli to social work.

“I grew up without any real stereotypes of people with hardships because I was one of them, and I knew that in a matter of a minute, people’s lives can change,” she says. “It really affected me super deeply, and affected what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to help people because I grew up in very challenging circumstances.”

She got her degree in social work and continued writing music on the side, while she began working with foster youth and kids who were in the welfare and foster systems.

“I felt really connected to these kids who were dealing with really similar challenges that I grew up with, kids who were living in very poor situations, kids who had parents in prison, parents on drugs, whatever reason their parents were unavailable to them, and they were stigmatized in all these different ways,” Dominelli says.

She was soon recruited to start a music program for kids who were living in a new residential treatment center.

“That was like a dream job to me,” she recalls. “I got to combine my music and passion for social work, it was this big ‘a-ha’ moment of the power of music to change and transform peoples lives.

“And this was about 15 years ago, really before music being used as a therapy. There wasn’t as much science behind it yet as there is now. But it was my first experience of music helping these kids that all these traditional counseling sessions couldn’t. Whatever else [may be available] is not as effective as starting bands and doing songwriting sessions and getting them passionate about learning a musical instrument. Really delving into something creative gave them a sense of self-esteem.”

That job ended because of budget cuts. Dominelli and a friend were contemplating going back to school to get masters degrees, but there were also some opportunities in Nashville to explore.

“We weren’t sure if we wanted to leave San Diego, but we did so we could still do our jobs and be part of a songwriting community.” So about a decade ago she made her way to Tennessee.

Nashville’s musical resources

Right around the time Dominelli arrived in Music City, someone saw on her resume the work she had done with the children in San Diego and said they were trying to do something similar here with their organization working with children with autism and Down syndrome, and brain injury patients.

“That was a bigger ‘a-ha’ moment for me because these were people, some who were non-verbal, but you turn on music or put a band in front of them or a drumstick in their hand and they can beat with the perfect rhythm,” she says. “There is just something in there that is connecting that nothing else in life can.”

But again, that job ended because of budget cuts. “Music is always the first thing to go,” she explains.

It was at that point Dominelli decided to figure out a way to do the program on her own, and two years ago, The Beat of Life was formed.

It wasn’t easy.

“I went out in the community and started meeting with all these heads of organizations, places you would think would have money for music programs,” she says. “They all loved the idea of using music for the different population groups they were serving, but they just didn’t have funds.”

But Dominelli knew Nashville had two things going for it. It was crawling with the right musical resources, including writers, studios, publishers, labels, music stores. She also knew there was a huge sense of community and love.

“It is what drew me to this city to begin with,” she adds. “We had those two dynamics: Massive resources and a community of people who love to give and help. So there is no reason why so many of these organizations could not have music programs.”

She began to pool all of the resources, including donated music, donated time, donated space, and now has three programs through the organization:

Sing it 2 Stop It is designed to stop bullying and is an in-class, school-wide songwriting workshop that sends professional songwriters into Metro Nashville classrooms.

The writers are tasked with creating a song with the group – encompassing the anti-bullying theme.

Redemption Songs pair songwriters with inmates in prison and juvenile detention facilities to collaborate on a song, as well as children of the inmates through music programs specifically designed for youth with an incarcerated parent.

Songwriters 4 Soldiers is a weekend-long retreat that has songwriters and veterans battling PTSD working on music together.

“It has become something so rewarding and enriching for the musicians and songwriters too,” she notes. “They are coming into these programs with a hit song on the radio, but telling me that writing with a soldier with PTSD was more meaningful.

“They are also getting to write songs about things they would never be able to write about – they wouldn’t have the stories themselves to write about these things.”

Dominelli says the program is ever evolving and growing, with new staff being added as well as a growing board of directors and advisory council.

“It has been a journey because I am not an entrepreneur type and have had to learn a lot about the difference between being a social worker and being an entrepreneur and starting something new,” she says.

“And it is so much bigger and powerful than a cool music program. It can save people from some really dark things and can really save their lives. I knew that this would be something that was really cool, but no idea how amazing it would be.”