Alumna’s trauma-informed youth chorus helps kids find the light within

Gabby Dietrich playing the piano

Gabby Dietrich (Photo credit: KOB 4)

Conservatory of Music alumna Gabby Dietrich ’02 has always valued the healing power of music—even when she didn’t fully realize it.

“I remember seeking out music making, not just as an expressive thing, but more as a place in my life where everything could be set right,” said Dietrich, who has been singing she was a child.

It’s now central to her work as the founder and director of a trauma-informed youth chorus in Albuquerque, New Mexico—believed to be the first of its kind nationwide.

“Trauma-informed” is a style of teaching that serves people who experience negative reactions after facing dangerous life experiences. While Dietrich’s group is primarily for trauma-informed youth, she does not turn away any child who wants to be in the choir.

The supportive outlet is highly needed. New Mexico is even with Arizona for having the highest rates of children suffering from adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect, the death of a parent or extreme economic insecurity.

“What that means is a lot of our folks come to us with things that have happened in their background that might not be obvious,” Dietrich said. “It’s not that we don't have structure or expect good behavior. We try to create an environment that's considerate and compassionate and enables everybody to do their best.”

Lighting a spark

The idea came to her in the summer of 2020 while reading “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk, which references choral singing as one way people process trauma.

Dietrich saw herself in the pages; chorus was her safe space growing up.

“There's something comforting about that when the environment you live in is chaotic and unpredictable, to have something in your life that makes sense and is consistent,” Dietrich said.

She pitched her idea for the youth chorus to the director of Coro Lux, an adult choir she sings with, at the same time he happened to be looking for a youth chorus for an upcoming performance of “La Fiesta de la Posada” by jazz legend and Pacific alumnus Dave Brubeck ’42. “It was serendipitous the way the group came about,” Dietrich said.

The El Faro Youth Chorus, which means “The Lighthouse,” was created not long after. “It’s this notion of the light being inside us, and the light can not only help us find our way, it can help other people find their way too,” Dietrich said.

They began with seven students in December 2020 and have already grown to 25. Anyone seven to 18 years old is welcome. No auditions, just a desire to sing. 

“That’s a big part of our philosophy,” Dietrich said. “If the place is stable enough and nurturing enough and ready enough for you, you can flourish there, regardless of whether or not you've shown up with the most solid background,” Dietrick said. “That’s an important message, and it embodies my experience at Pacific.”

“The faculty (at Pacific) put you on the right path, make sure you have what you need, but also let you be free to be an innovator.” - Gabby Dietrich

Finding “her people” at Pacific

Dietrich came to Pacific from Portland, Oregon. She had been homeschooled through 12th grade and never had a private voice lesson.

“My first time in a school at all was 600 miles from the place I grew up. That should have been tough, and it really was like a dream come true. I walked onto campus, and I found my people,” Dietrich said.

Attending a small university gave Dietrich opportunities not often available to undergraduates, such as conducting an orchestra and working with classmates on student-led initiatives. Shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks, she was part of a group that raised money for the American Red Cross with a performance of “Faure’s Requiem.”

“It’s part of what makes Pacific special because it was both structure and nurture. The faculty put you on the right path, make sure you have what you need, but also let you be free to be an innovator,” she said.

After earning her bachelor’s in music education, Dietrich went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees from University of Colorado at Boulder and was an associate teaching professor of music at Penn State Erie, the Behrend College for nine years.

When work became remote during the pandemic, she and her husband took the opportunity to move to New Mexico.

Seeing her dream come to life

Over the past two years, she’s watched her idea take off—even among some who were initially resistant.

“This was not something that she willingly wanted to do,” said Lavone Yazzie, referring to her 11-year-old daughter Lily. She told her daughter to try it for one month.

“In two practices, it was a 180. She loves it so much. I think the thing that she really appreciates about it is that Gabby treats everybody like people; she doesn't talk down to them,” Yazzie said.

Katy Anderson whose two daughters, ages 11 and 14 are in the choir, sees value beyond the music.

“Every rehearsal, she does a question of the day, so they’re singing but getting to know each other as well as celebrating what makes them different and unique,” Anderson said, adding that they also learn other languages and history through music.

Dietrich incorporates a variety of musical styles, languages and composers to introduce students to different voices.

“We intentionally talk about who wrote this piece? What does it mean? What does the sound make you think of? I like to engage the students in all of that because I think it's really important,” Dietrich said.

She has big plans to expand the program in the future, but for now she is already seeing—and hearing—her dream come to life.

“I don't say that lightly … I feel so fortunate and grateful to work with these young people and their parents,” Dietrich said.