MAMA Foundation for the Arts Gospel Protocol: psychosocial impact on at-risk children and youth

Principal Investigator: Barry Bittman, MD



This controlled prospective preliminary study has been designed to examine the psychosocial impact of a unique 24-session Gospel music protocol on adolescent clients at the MAMA Foundation in New York.

An initial cohort of adolescents ranging in age from 13 to 19 will participate in a structured program focusing on building self esteem, group support, enhanced communications and respect utilizing a Gospel singing protocol developed by the MAMA Foundation. 

The study design includes 3 measurement scales – two self-reported and one performed by third party observers.  The self-reported surveys are the Adolescent Psychopathology Scale (short form – APS-SF) and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.  The third party rater scale is the Adolescent Visual Analogue Recreational Music Making Assessment (A-VARMMA) developed by Bittman. 

In addition, quarterly school grades and absence/tardy occurrences will be documented through report cards each semester for each subject.  Furthermore, the prior year’s report cards will be submitted to establish a baseline.

An extension of this preliminary protocol for a larger cohort will subsequently be considered pending the results of this preliminary trial.


MAMA is a nationally recognized organization whose mission is to present, preserve and promote the history and fundamentals of gospel, jazz and rhythm and blues music for current and future generations. Its best known and most important program is its Gospel for Teens effort, which annually serves 150 young people, ages 13 to 19, almost all from low-income families in Harlem and other minority communities throughout New York City. This tuition-free, after-school program provides rigorous training in vocal technique, history and instruction on the evolution of gospel music, as well as performances throughout the metropolitan area.  The program teaches teens about their heritage while improving the discipline, focus and teamwork needed to compete academically.  This unique MAMA Gospel Music protocol has been developed to promote an engaging, affirmative, and safe environment for enhancing communication and building self-esteem for adolescents and teens.  

In April 2011, Gospel for Teens was featured in an extended segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes. The broadcast brought an immediate increase in the program’s popularity, accelerating the need to boost its finances to handle more applicants, improve its programming, and enhance its capability to track programmatic outcomes in areas such as demographic data and impact on academic performance.

As youths master breathing, harmony, pitch and control, they learn about the history of black music in America and its impact on the country’s culture. Even more importantly, the rigorous training required to study and perform gospel music at a professional level helps students learn lessons about self-discipline, delayed gratification, and teamwork. Although not formally an academic program itself, Gospel for Teens facilitates the transfer of these lessons into other aspects of the youths’ lives, from academic performance to character development and interpersonal relationships.

Approximately 75 low-income teens, aged 13 to 19, qualify each year to participate in Gospel for Teens through an open audition which is widely advertised in schools, churches and community centers throughout New York City. Typically, 400 or more teens turn out to audition, with the only qualification being a basic ability to carry a tune, and the willingness to dedicate oneself to the practice necessary to excel. Few enrollees have ever had any formal voice training prior to acceptance into Gospel for Teens, nor are there any academic, or other requirements.

There is no charge for program participation, and once performances begin, students are provided with money needed for transportation, as well as a small stipend.

Despite the program’s deceptively simple admission criteria, in six years not a single youth has been expelled. Gospel for Teens’ teaching staff prides itself on its ability to spot not just talent, but also character in the youths who clamor to be admitted each year.

Students spend about half-a-year, in two separate 12-week sessions held every Saturday, starting as “freshmen,” and then moving on to “advanced” classes. In both “semesters,” youths take about an hour learning music history, as well as performing various warm-ups and exercises. Thereafter, a teacher, referred to as a Music Master takes over to focus on learning and rehearsing each song. Homework includes studying lyrics and working to perfect technique.

Once students “graduate” from the basic and advanced training classes, they become part of the Gospel for Teens performance troupe, which encompasses continued study, practice and rehearsals each Saturday, as well as occasional extra sessions on Friday evenings for the most advanced performers. Some youths may also come for one-to-one tutoring sessions on Fridays, as needed.

After participants complete their 24-weeks of basic “boot camp” classes, they become eligible to participate in live performances. Participating youths become part of a vibrant professional performing group as they continue to learn about both music and self-discipline, even as they take part in shows throughout metropolitan New York City – and sometimes far beyond. Since the program began, students have entertained audiences with over 150 performances in more than 50 different venues.

Their performances, which have included backing-up Madonna; performing the national anthem at Yankee Stadium; providing entertainment for an opening at Bloomingdale’s; and singing for the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, DC, are frequently remunerated. This arrangement, only possible in view of the growing reputation of Gospel for Teens, helps to fund as much as half of the program’s costs each year.

The youth who profit from the program are able to contribute to its perpetuation, even as they continue to learn and benefit from ongoing participation. This is an incredibly effective means for teaching responsibility as teens come to understand that their own success helps promote the program to others.

Gospel for Teens has been an annual program offering at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and has frequently collaborated with the Choir Academy of Harlem. MAMA has worked on projects with the 125th Street Business Improvement District (BID) and was recently “adopted” by The Links, Incorporated, one of the oldest and largest volunteer service organizations of women committed to enriching, sustaining and ensuring the culture and economic survival of African-Americans. The agency also works closely with several Harlem middle and high schools.


The majority of young people participating in Gospel for Teens are from low-income families. The ethnicity of students is 71% African-American, 22% Latino/Hispanic, and 7% Multicultural/ethnic. Many live in neighborhoods which suffer from high rates of unemployment, violent crime, and the consequences of illegal drug trafficking. Teens are at-risk for developing negative behaviors that can impact their lives and futures. The Gospel for Teens program is designed to reduce these influences by providing opportunities to learn new skills and by promoting bonding between teens and adult mentors.

Program concepts include: a) creating a safe haven for teens to express themselves; b) utilizing art as a vehicle to encourage a positive outlook and increased self-esteem; c) providing students with opportunities to succeed individually and as part of a group; d) involving students in public concerts which increase their visibility and involvement in their community.


This time is for you − it is your investment in yourself and in your voice. You have been chosen, and you are now an ambassador of the music— a caretaker.  Discover the joy of sharing the music and passing it on.  You are part of a team.  You are a force for change − a musical movement − an intention to save a longstanding tradition, and to carry its contribution well into the future.


A 2-semester 24-session MOMA Gospel Music protocol will result in multiple measures of decreased psychopathology, improved self-esteem, improved engagement, self-control, empathy, disclosure and transcendence, and improved grades/attendance in participating adolescents/teens.