“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?”
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.