Finding Common Ground on a Bus & in Prison

Last weekend Me2/Orchestra members went to Springfield, Vermont to perform for inmates at the Southern State Correctional Facility. Springfield is a two-hour ride from South Burlington, where we gathered in the high school parking lot to board a yellow school bus. Most of us had not spent much time socializing outside of rehearsal, so the bus ride was a chance to get to know each other.

Upon arrival we went through security and were fed a meal prepared by the inmates. We ate alongside two guards who kept us company, answered our questions, and generally kept an eye on us. After dinner we had a brief rehearsal to get warmed-up, and then the first inmates started to drift into the room. They arrived one by one and eventually a few entered in small groups. In total there were around 40 inmates who came to hear the orchestra play.

It was a “self-selected” audience; nobody was forced to attend the concert. Our audience members had signed-up in advance to attend. When we asked the inmates what they would otherwise be doing on a Saturday night, most said they would be playing cards, reading, or just doing nothing.

For the next hour, the visitation room at the Springfield prison was filled with 65 people who shared music, stories, and laughter. We performed music by Handel, Brahms, and Vermont composer David Hamlin, who attended the performance and answered questions from the inmates about his creative process.

The most memorable quote of the evening came from an inmate in the second row. The orchestra gave a lively performance of Mozart’s “Impresario” Overture.  When the applause died down, this man sitting up front exclaimed:

“That music is exactly how I feel every morning!

… (pause)…-9

 I mean, after I take my meds!” 

The room erupted in laughter. If the walls between musicians and inmates hadn’t been dismantled earlier, they certainly evaporated in that moment.

What more could we as musicians hope for in a performance? We played music by Mozart and an audience member related that music to his everyday experience. The fact that this audience member was a prisoner – and a person presumably taking medication to stabilize his mood – just made the moment all the more poignant.


caroline whiddon
Caroline Whiddon

I’m Caroline, I’m the Executive Director of Me2/Orchestra, and this was my third visit to the Southern State Correctional Facility in the past three years. During each visit I learn something about myself – but more importantly, I learn something about my fellow human beings.

Music in the Prisons: Days 1 and 2

Ronald Braunstein
Liam, Will, and Patrick enjoying some leisure time after a performance

I really need to get some sleep but my mind is spinning with thoughts about the past two days. The Me2/ cello trio performed a total of three times yesterday in the St. Johnsbury and Newport correctional facilities, and gave one performance today in the Chittenden County facility. Tomorrow morning we leave for Springfield and then head down to Windsor, returning to Burlington in time for dinner.

I won’t even attempt to share details at this time. There’s so much I could write and so few hours before I need to get up again tomorrow morning and begin driving the tour van. I’ll just share a few little vignettes:

– The first prisoner to enter the room for our very first concert yesterday walked directly to a seat in the front row, plopped down, and said with a grin, “I played the violin for 5 years.” We immediately felt more at ease.

– I giggled watching the prison guard carefully hold each cello and bow as Liam, Will, and Patrick went through the metal detector this morning. Seeing a uniformed officer with a cello in his hands was definitely a first!

– A prisoner walked quietly up to Will after today’s performance and said, “I got really emotional listening to you play. Thank you so much for doing this.”

– An audience member confided in me that they had struggled with mental health issues in the past. I asked, “How are you doing now?” and the answer I received was, “I really put my energy into making music and it helped me get through some tough times.”

– The trio played a gorgeous piece by Bach, and a man who had been listening with his eyes closed immediately raised his hand and asked, “What story is that music telling? I’d really like to know the story.”

We’ve shared a lot of smiles and laughter this week in locations that we don’t normally associate with positive emotions. I promise to share more soon, and the trio members are all composing some thoughts to post on the blog, too. Thanks to everyone who has supported us and expressed excitement over our adventure this week!

Caroline Whiddon, Executive Director