Academy of Country Music, VKC make sweet music together

ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp

The most well-known collaboration between the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) and the Academy of Country Music (ACM) is the ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp.  Each summer, adults with Williams syndrome celebrate music by participating in a songwriting workshop, recording session, songwriter’s night, and a live performance on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, joined by ACM country artists throughout the week. Amid all the fun, campers are also invited to take part in research activities.

Williams syndrome is a rare genetic condition associated with an unusual pattern of strengths and weaknesses in linguistic and cognitive profiles, as well as intellectual disability. A common attribute in individuals with Williams syndrome is an affinity for music, which makes the partnership with ACM so meaningful.

Headshot of Hailee Hunt-Hawkins“Music Camp began with just 10 campers and the desire to create an experience for musical growth, social engagement, and research. Since ACM Lifting Lives became involved in 2009, Music Camp has grown to reach over 150 campers from across the U.S., Canada, even Australia, with participation from more than 80 country music artists and songwriters,” said Music Camp director Hailee Hunt-Hawkins. “We love working with these artists, who always make the campers feel like superstars for the week. ACM has elevated this camp to create a superstar experience for our campers, and we are so thankful for the partnership.”

SENSE Theatre® Academy of Country Music Lifting Lives Summer Camp

Another summer camp opportunity made possible by ACM Lifting Lives is the SENSE Theatre® Academy of Country Music Lifting Lives Summer Camp for young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). SENSE Theatre® is a unique intervention research program for youth with ASD, developed by VKC researcher and professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Psychology Blythe Corbett, Ph.D.

Headshot of Blythe Corbett
Blythe Corbett, Ph.D.

“I had been working for several years with children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder and thought about theatre, which emphasizes social communication and flexible thought – areas that children with autism most need to learn,” said Corbett. “I thought theatre might be a unique and wonderful way for children with autism to enhance these important skills in a fun and supportive environment.”

ACM has supported SENSE Theatre® through the years, but 2022 was the first year the theatre camp was able to take place in-person over the course of two weeks. During the camp experience, participants ranging from ages 10-16 came together to cultivate their social and communication skills by stretching themselves through theatre exercises and interactions with their fellow trained peer actors. This year, ACM sponsored a guest appearance by Caleb Lee Hutchison, a singer-songwriter and runner-up on a recent season of “American Idol,” who led a master class in performing with the campers.

At the end of the two weeks, the campers put on a production of the original play “The Year of the Ladybug” for the public to show off their performance skills.

“We were able to conduct research in a camp setting, which was both rigorous and creative,” said Corbett. “I’m really grateful for ACM for providing us this opportunity.”

Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab

VKC researchers Miriam Lense, Ph.D., and Reyna Gordon, Ph.D., serve as co-directors of the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab. The lab is focused on the relationship between music, language, and social development. Lense’s work specifically is focused on studying the music and rhythm of social engagement and how scientists can use music to support social and emotional well-being, with a particular emphasis on families of children with autism and other developmental disorders.

Headshot of Miriam Lense
Miriam Lense, Ph.D.

“In one of our research programs, we examine the ‘active ingredients’ of parent-child music interventions. Musical games and song can be a really great way to support parent-child interactions in families of young children, including parents of young children with autism,” said Lense. “With ACM Lifting Lives support, we are looking at how we may be changing parents’ behavior through using music and song activities.”

The ACM’s support has also contributed to the Music Cognition Lab’s development of mindfulness-based music and songwriting programs to support parents of children with autism and other developmental disabilities, who often experience higher levels of stress and have increased rates of mental health difficulties. Previous research, including pioneering work done at Vanderbilt, shows how mindfulness-based practices and music can be helpful for stress reduction and emotion regulation in families of children with developmental disabilities.

“Music is part of the human experience. We as humans are a musical species,” added Lense. “We are driven to want to socially engage and interact and connect with others, and music turns out to be a truly wonderful way to do that. Science continues to show us how music impacts the brain, the body, and the mind to support health and well-being.

“We are thrilled to have support from ACM Lifting Lives that helps further our research on this connection.”

All Access Inclusion Network

The All Access Inclusion Network (AAIN) is the community outreach arm of the VKC’s Treatment & Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD). The mission of the AAIN is to promote awareness, accessibility, and inclusion of individuals with ASD and other intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families by building capacity throughout a community network of arts, education, athletic, and entertainment organizations.

With the support of ACM Lifting Lives, AAIN is capable of further promoting inclusion and belonging through increased visibility and training opportunities for community organizations and service providers to make their spaces welcoming for everyone.

Headshot of Lauren Weaver
Lauren Weaver, M.S., BCBA, LBA

“TRIAD is honored to be partners with ACM in supporting the All Access Inclusion Network,” said AINN Community Engagement director Lauren Weaver, M.S., BCBA, LBA. “The AAIN multidisciplinary team has relied on feedback and guidance by autistic and community advisors to provide direction for increasing accessibility and inclusion in community organizations. This includes some of the biggest and most important community organizations across Middle Tennessee – including the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

“Through this partnership we’re able to support organizations in increasing accessing and inclusive opportunities for neurodivergent individuals through staff and volunteer trainings, resource development at organizations, and collaboration across the network. We’re proud to support organizations in creating better representation of neurodivergent staff and patrons in our community.”

INN Video from TRIAD on Vimeo.