Songwriting for Self-Expression with Carla Tanguay



This songwriting workshop was designed to facilitate expression of feelings and promote social bonding among people with cancer during this time of Covid-19. The workshop, for non-musicians, featured structured songwriting experiences, both individual and collective. Participants had the opportunity to create lyrics, make musical decisions, and participate in the recorded performance of created works with simple instruments/voice techniques.

The project culminated in a virtual event on Friday, April 16th, which showcased select songs composed during the workshop. In addition, workshop instructor Carla Tanguay discussed the broader role of music and music therapy during the pandemic with fellow Jack Pine Project instructor Kate Beever. To view the recording of the event, click here.

Instructor Bio

Carla Tanguay (she/her) is a board-certified music therapist with almost 20 years of experience helping people improve their lives using music. She has been a featured speaker at national conferences, medical schools, and healthcare organizations and was recognized with a professional practice award from the American Music Therapy Association. Her training and experience center around helping people express feelings through music, regardless of their level of musical experience. Her business, Modulations Therapies, LLC, provides music therapy services, lessons, and consultation to individuals, families, and organizations throughout Hancock and Penobscot Counties. Carla holds a Bachelor’s of Music Education in Music Therapy from the College of Wooster and an MA in Music Therapy from St. Mary of the Woods College. Her website is


Artist’s Statement

Songwriting is a powerful tool for self-expression and exploration which can tap into both individual and collective experiences related to COVID-19. The structure of this workshop will give people who may not otherwise consider themselves “musical” the opportunity to find and share their musical voice. Doing this in a group setting will help forge connections and strengthen bonds. More of my thoughts on why people are turning to music during the pandemic can be found on my blog.

Workshop Results

This essay is by Carla Tanguay; more information is available on her blog, Change Through Music.

Composing and performing a song when you don’t consider yourself a musician can be a formidable task. But for Mainers already facing a cancer diagnosis and adapting to life during COVID-19, it was a challenge they were ready to take on. Like most group experiences right now, we met over Zoom. The challenge of making music together over an online platform was just one more obstacle that we overcame!

Connecting through music is part of human nature, and we have been doing it for generations. When I learned that the University of Maine was looking for artists to lead workshops that would add to our understanding of how the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting Mainers, I was immediately interested in participating. Artists were asked to identify cohorts of people with a unique experience to share. I approached the Beth Wright Cancer Center in Ellsworth, who helped recruit participants already facing a life-threatening illness before the pandemic. We wanted to use musical expression to bring people together, and to highlight their individual and collective experiences.

Music is a wonderful way to break down barriers and build bonds quickly. We began our workshop by sharing our favorite musical styles and songs. We spoke about how music helps connect us to our history, to our hopes, and to each other. We explored how COVID-19 has impacted our lives, and what it is like to live through a pandemic while also having a cancer diagnosis.

It didn’t take long for the group, none of whom would describe themselves as a “musician,” to begin writing their own songs. We quickly progressed from a humorous Mad Libs songwriting exercise, to fill-in-the-blank compositions using existing songs. New lyrics were created to tunes like “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “On Top of Old Smokey,” and “I Can See Clearly Now.” Songs touched on topics ranging from grocery shopping during the pandemic, to racism and social injustices, to imagining a time when cancer and COVID-19 have both been defeated. Participants were excited to sing their creations to the group each week and received much support from each other.

Our final project was an original song, loosely modeled after John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”. This song was an opportunity to collaborate together on lyrics, melody, and recording. We formulated the concept and then worked diligently on revising the lyrics to include the variety of perspectives represented in our group. We wanted to capture the layers of uncertainty and fear that underlie both a cancer diagnosis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once lyrics were finished, individual members took on the challenging technological task of recording themselves while singing along to a guide track. I learned how to stitch the individual recordings together using music editing software in order to create a blended piece. Our goal was to create a unified recording that represents our feelings about COVID-19 and cancer, while also capturing how we could be physically apart but still create something amazing together. The video we created is linked to here. The lyrics to our song are below.

So This is Covid
By Seren B., Bob C., and Kay J.

So this is COVID,
A deadly disease.
Silent and stealthy,
Until we can’t breathe.

A life-threatening illness,
We call COVID-19.
We’ve lost far too many,
And most go unseen.

And so this is Cancer,
How much can we take?
The pain and the suffering ,
With hardly a break.

A stressful 2020,
Not such a good year.
We must keep our distance,
But I want someone here.

Covid and Cancer,
Layers of fear.
I want my life back,
The future’s unclear.

We’ve got double the threat.
Let’s all wear a mask.
Covid and cancer,
We are up for the task.

We have the power,
To change what we can.
Be positive and vigilant,
We will take a stand!

Covid and Cancer,
It’s been quite a year.
Let’s work together,
And conquer our fear.

Special thanks to the University of Maine Jack Pine Project and the Beth Wright Cancer Center.