Great Big Sea bassist creates ‘Songwriting for Wellness’ program to provide trauma support

Murray Foster, bassist for Great Big Sea, has been teaching songwriting since 2014. (Image from

2023-03-10 18:58:00

For Murray Foster, a Canadian musician and the bassist for Great Big Sea, songwriting is a way to “go right to the heart and allow healing to start through music.”

This healing power is something the award-winning artist has been sharing with Canadians who have experienced grief or trauma.

“Songwriting can bypass those conscious mechanisms and go right to the heart and open it up,” he told in a phone interview.

Foster has been facilitating a program called Songwriting for Wellness, a series of workshops that teaches Canadian workers the basics of songwriting as a tool to deal with the experiences they encounter in high-stress, trauma-exposed workplaces.

“It’s for people who want to explore songwriting as a way to process their grief and start to heal,” he explained.

After Great Big Sea retired in 2014, Foster founded Toronto Songwriting School, through which he aims to share his experience and knowledge with developing songwriters. Through his teaching, he met Maureen Pollard, a registered social worker in Cobourg, Ont.

“I said to him, ‘I’d really like to do a wellness program on song writing for professionals on the front line,’” Pollard, who has over 30 years of experience helping people cope with grief and trauma, explained in a phone interview with “’Will you help me develop something like that? Could we do that?’”

Foster agreed to help launch the program.

The musician-and-social-worker duo ran a pilot of the program for the staff at a homeless shelter in Cobourg in the fall, called Transition House, helping workers process the trauma and grief that comes with their job. They ended up with a song titled “We Are All People,” which Foster recorded and produced.

“We met for four weeks and wrote the song and I recorded it and sent it to them,” Foster said. “They played it at their workplace and apparently everyone was crying at their desks.”

Foster starts by introducing playful writing prompts, such as “write a verse about a dolphin,” or a “pomegranate.” The idea, he explained, is to disarm any intimidation and welcome playfulness.

“Playfulness can be so healing,” he said.

“There are a lot of people who are experiencing grief who don’t allow themselves to play, and have fun, and smile and laugh. And that’s sort of the way into it.”

Foster then asks participants to make a list of words that come to mind when thinking about their workplace.

“At that point I start facilitating the song creation process. We’ll talk about, what’s the chorus, what’s the title of this song, what’s the thesis of this song? We’ll work back from there,” he explained.

“What they don’t even realize are the layers of trauma that they carry until they hear that song. So that is the process. There are a lot of people, especially [as a result of the] pandemic, who are carrying a lot of trauma but have no way to process it and no time to process it because they have to wake up and go to their job every day. And the job doesn’t allow for them to go have a cry in the broom closet.”

To Foster, making a formalized course allows people the space to talk to each other about the trauma, about the workplace and the common experiences. It opens up a dialogue that in some ways transcends words.

“It opens up a discussion about the workplace but also the trauma. That itself is really healing — just to have opened that door and allowed them to walk through that door, to discuss these feelings in a way that’s safe.”

Pollard said they are hoping to take it across the country.

“We think everyone can benefit from song writing as a tool for personal wellness,” she said. “We think the songs generated from it will be really meaningful for different groups of people. The goal of the program primarily is to give all people who [participate] the basics of song writing as a way to express emotions and to work through the things that they deal with. But then we’ll also have some powerful songs that are produced by every group.” 

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