Music in Prison: “I felt appreciated and useful.”

Me2/Orchestra performed for inmates in the Southern State Correctional Facility (Springfield, VT) earlier this month. I asked the musicians for their feedback on the experience of performing in prison. Here are a few of their responses:

Margie: “I was a little bit nervous when we first got to the prison, and a little bit more nervous when the inmates started coming in.  And then still a little bit more nervous during our first piece (the Overture to Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks).  I thought, I hope we haven’t misled these people in any way; maybe they were expecting some kind of concert other than a classical music concert.  But then they were so appreciative and so open with us and so nice to us after we finished that first piece.  Truly, by the end of the evening, I felt like these were normal guys who just happened to have made mistakes.  I was really happy to have spent some time relating to them, getting to know them a little bit better.”

Travis: “I have found that the most genuine way to erase stigma is to have people spend time face to face, providing them with the opportunity to realize their similarities and transcend their differences.  Both the Me2/ players and our enthusiastic audience members had that unique opportunity inside the Southern State Correctional Facility. We were able to use music to find common ground. Events like this performance help people who are in need of a positive identity forge one for themselves.”

Kate: “Playing at the prison was a remarkable experience: being able to interact with the attentive and interested prisoners and share a little bit of what is normal for us was great. I felt appreciated and useful. It was an honor to share this experience with the individuals in the Springfield prison.”

One of the most striking things I noticed in the comments and in conversations with nearly every orchestra member after the performance is that they all said how much fun it was to play for the inmates. Many remarked that this was one of the most enjoyable concerts they had ever played because they had the opportunity to truly engage with the audience in a very direct way.

The audience was invited to provide feedback and ask questions after every piece was performed. This rarely, if ever, happens in orchestral performance situations. Granted, it would be nearly impossible in a performance hall seating 1,500+ people, which is the setting in which most orchestral performances occur. The opportunity to have 22 musicians performing for an audience of 40 people in an intimate, classroom-type setting is very rare and truly special. The members of Me2/Orchestra walked away from the performance feeling “appreciated and useful” because they were not only playing music for an audience (which by itself has enormous value), but sharing a musical experience on a personal level and uncovering our commonalities as human beings.

Some might say that we, the members of Me2/Orchestra, learned a thing or two about stigma by interacting with the prisoners in Springfield. We know there are men inside that facility who committed serious crimes, and if we’d known the history of some of the men in our audience it might have scared us. Regardless, on a Saturday night in Vermont we sat together in a small room and focused on the things we have in common, including our love for music.

When we asked the prisoners if any of them played instruments, a young man in the front row raised his hand:

“I can play ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ on pretty much any instrument, he said. “I have a degree in music education.”


Posted by Caroline Whiddon, Me2/Orchestra Executive Director

“Music in the Prisons”: Reflections from the Performers


[The Me2/ cello trio toured the state of Vermont from August 6-10, 2012, giving hour-long performances in all of Vermont’s correctional facilities. After their successful performance tour, I asked the cello trio members to answer a few questions about their experiences. Their thoughts are shared below. — Caroline Whiddon, Me2/ Executive DIrector]
 

Why did you agree to give up a week of your summer vacation to go on a musical tour of Vermont’s prisons?

Will: Getting an offer to tour prisons is not an everyday opportunity. My summer is very busy with work and various other activities, but I was excited to expand my musical horizons with this unique experience.

Patrick: I’ve always wanted to play in a cello ensemble and I’ve always been interested in the more “activist” side of music. This was the best of both worlds.

What did you learn by performing for prisoners? How was this different from other performances?

Will: I’ve never had such an interactive audience. Usually, when playing classical repertoire, the show is very regimented with little to no conversation. On this tour there was dialogue between almost every piece of music. We had great conversations with our audience members. It was powerful listening to the inmates’ perspectives on music.

Patrick: Playing for the inmates gave us the unique experience of audience interaction and participation, something that really enhances the sense of community we can achieve from making music together. Every performance yielded new and thought-provoking questions and commentary, ranging from how the cello is constructed to how to “jam” to what kinds of music we love to how a composer even begins to make music.

I was also surprised by how many fellow musicians we encountered. Our performances did not feel like “charity”, nor did they feel like an elementary school “show and tell”. They created real dialogue and a connection between everyone in the room.

Liam: We had some of the best audiences I have ever played for. Inmates were extremely engaged and attentive during performance. I felt an energy that connected us (the musicians) to the audience unlike any other concert I have played.

We noticed that each prison had a unique atmosphere. As musicians, we can gauge our audience by their body language and the general feeling of the venue. As we played, many individuals leaned forward in their chairs, training their eyes and ears on us. After we finished, the energy in the room relaxed and the audience sat back, appreciative and reflective, digesting what just occurred.

As it turns out, prison is a real place with real walls, real bars, and with real people just like you and me.

Tell me about some of your interactions with the inmates that made an impression on you. How did they respond to you?

Patrick: We were all nervous for our first performance. And being locked behind solid metal bars just to get to our venue certainly didn’t help with that. But after our first experience we never felt nervous again. The inmates really valued our performances and many of them took the time afterward to thank us. At every facility, they asked us when we would come back.

Liam: My preconceived notions about prisoners were dissolved. Hands were raised when they had questions, and everyone listened respectfully while someone spoke. Looking back on the tour, I probably enjoyed our discussions with audience members even more than the actual performances.

Will: I didn’t realize how much of an impact an hour of classical music would really have, but hearing an inmate say “this is the best experience I’ve had in all five years of being here” was simply jaw dropping.

How would you respond if another artist came to you tomorrow and said, “I’m thinking about performing/teaching in prison. Do you think I should I do it?” 

Patrick: ABSOLUTELY.

Liam: Yes, you should definitely do it. Inmates have little to no access to music. Live music does wonders for people. One individual told the trio, “Outside of prison, I would never have gone to a classical music performance,” and he added that a live performance of classical music is “a very special thing to get”.

Do people who have committed crimes deserve to have access to performances?

Liam: Yes, of course they do. Prisoners have almost no access to music other than the radio. Bringing classical music into prisons allows inmates time and space for reflection. Classical music has the power to heal.

Patrick: Yes, without question. Music has incredible healing and nurturing abilities. Many of the men and women we met with had very limited or no consistent access to music or musical instruments at all. One man told us that in 5 years he had never seen a musical performance group come to the facility. If these people are incarcerated for the purpose of rehabilitation and to understand what it means to be better citizens, then they need access to the most universal language of humanity: music. Many people we met told us that they listen to their radios whenever they can, and that music has given them a new perspective on life. Music is transformative.

If you were to perform in the prisons again, what might you do differently, and why?

Will: Not IF, simply WHEN. I’ll be back with a team of Berklee [School of Music] friends. You’d better believe there will be an electric cello with me as well!

Patrick: I would do what the audiences asked us to do: bring more instruments!

Liam: I would prepare a piece of music that was requested in St Albans during our final performance of the tour: “Amazing Grace”.

Special thanks to the individual donors who contributed specifically in support of the “Music in the Prisons” tour. This project was made possible through the Small and Inspiring Grant Program from the Vermont Community Foundation

What does music look like?

I have an interesting relationship with my cello. Compared to many musicians my age, I often feel like a “late bloomer”. Although there is some video evidence to suggest I encountered a live cellist at the age of 3, I was not reintroduced to the concept until the winter of my 4th grade year. Just after turning 10, my father took me to the violin shop and began paying the rent on my first cello—an instrument I chose for a handful of illogical reasons: fewer kids chose the cello than the violin, it was still small enough to squeeze onto the bus, and it had a cool “mustache”. There was no reason to assume on that first day that I would stick with the cello for as long as I have, and neither my parents nor I had any inkling of the places music would take me.

After we left the violin shop with my first cello, my father bought me a CD: Yo Yo Ma’s Appalachia Waltz. It was the first time that I truly appreciated instrumental music, and I was excited at the prospect of playing like that someday. I was also daunted. It was the first of many days and experiences I would share with my cello as music performance became an established and routine part of my education and childhood.

My cello grew up with me. I have taken it on numerous bus rides, I’ve danced with it, I’ve taken naps with it, I’ve played it in many chamber groups and orchestras, I’ve stuffed it into the backseat of the car more times than I can count. I’ve knocked it over, I’ve tripped on the endpin, I’ve fallen asleep sitting with my cheek against its shoulder, I’ve snapped strings, I’ve taken it to college. My cello and I have played auditions together, worked on pieces together, made recordings, and made mistakes. My cello puts up with all of my antics and doesn’t take offense when I chuck my bow against the wall in frustration. We’ve endured the laziest practice sessions and the most tedious. If my room is cold I wrap my cello in a blanket overnight. Sometimes we watch TV together.

And for all that I’ve put onto my poor, patient instrument, it has taken me farther than I could have imagined 10 years ago. In fact, one year ago I couldn’t have guessed where I’d be right now. I met Ronald Braunstein in late August 2010 as a cellist in the Vermont Youth Orchestra. I was captivated and energized by his passion (and his quirkiness). The start of that concert season held an enormous amount of promise, and I had never before engaged in a better, more unifying and cohesive musical experience. When Ronald and Caroline—a one-woman motivational act and pillar of my time with the VYOA—left the organization, it felt like the end of an era. And it was.

However, both of these remarkable and compassionate people faced a difficult, emotional, and daunting transition with a grace that ultimately produced the Me2/Orchestra. When Ronald and Caroline told me about their plan, I was both excited and curious. I was pleased at the prospect of working with them, and also intensely interested in where Me2/ would end up.

Nearly 6 months later, I cannot believe the growth of our orchestra and our community. And I would never have guessed that my musical path would lead me here. Me2/ has been a wonderful conglomeration of luck, optimism, circumstance, and good people. I feel lucky to be a part of the “tribe”. I am glad that out of the 4 evenings per week when I drag my cello out into the cold, jam it into the back of a car, roll it along gravel and ice, one of those evenings is spent with the Me2/Orchestra. Ronald’s musical spirit never dampens, and it inspires the music we make. Caroline’s optimism and drive give us direction. Each individual is compassionate, spirited, and committed.

Caroline’s most recent blog post posed the question: what does mental illness look like? It looks like the Me2/Orchestra, a community that embraces differences and promotes good health. We are all regular people, and we are all healthy in our pursuit of finding balance in our own lives. A mental “illness” isn’t a “sickness” or “unhealthy”, it is a struggle that every person experiences in some way—in his or her own life or in the lives of others. The musicians of the Me2/Orchestra—both those personally struggling and those impacted—are healthy, normal, talented people because they choose to create and participate in an environment where those values are promoted. You can’t glance across the room and point out which of us struggle with mental illness and which of us don’t. Fundamentally, we all struggle—to fight the stigma.

On a long list of experiences I never would have had without my cello, the Me2/Orchestra is one of the most remarkable. So many random circumstances brought me to it—that I happened be in the Vermont Youth Orchestra when Ronald arrived there, that I stayed in Vermont for college, that I even chose music in the first place. In 4th grade, playing the cello was about missing half of science class for my lesson and playing in the orchestra with the 5th graders. I picked it for arbitrary reasons—none of them even close to why I choose to stick with it now. For all of the places and circumstances in which I’ve taken my cello along with me, it has also taken me into a host of experiences like this one, affirming not only why music is so important to my life and my own mental health—but the ways in which it can make a difference for social change.

Patrick
Me2/Orchestra cellist

What does music look like? http://vimeo.com/2046250