Are you anxious?
“Are you anxious?” asked one of the participants during a break in our 2-hour session. It was an understandable question – I was sitting in a classroom at the Danville Correctional Center in Danville, Illinois, giving a workshop on creativity to seven incarcerated men. I was there under the auspices of the University of Illinois’ Education Justice Project, running one of two sessions that I’ll be giving at the prison as part of my Composer-in-Residence position with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra. It certainly was a new situation for me, from passing though the several security checkpoints while carrying only a clear plastic bag with my belongings, to finding myself completely surrounded by male inmates and guards. It was also a warm and humid day in late June, and the air conditioner was temporarily out in the Vocational Building, which made for balmy conditions inside the classroom. So yes, I was certainly feeling the uniqueness of the situation. But I was also experiencing quite an adrenaline rush, the type I used to get from classroom teaching when I formerly taught at Roosevelt University and that I’ve not felt in quite awhile. It was exhilarating! I had walked into the prison, not knowing how the participants would respond to my workshop; halfway through it, they were energetically taking part in my lesson plan, and I felt a sense of community building as we delved into the creative process together.
My interest in bringing creativity into prisons has been growing for years. Music has the power to inspire and to empower, and learning to tap into one’s creativity can help people discover their potential in both musical and non-musical aspects of their lives. Why is this important? Because the United States, on average, incarcerates its population at five times the rate of most other countries throughout the world. According to www.prisonpolicy.com, we incarcerate 698 people for every 100,000; in comparison, England incarcerates 141 people per 100,000, Canada stands at 114 per 100,000 and Norway at 74 per 100,000. When we compare our numbers to those in countries with authoritarian or communist rule, civil unrest, or varying amounts of government instability, the U.S. is well ahead in the numbers too, with Cuba at 510 per 100,000, Rwanda at 434 per 100,000, and China at 118 per 100,000 (see these statistics and more at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/2018.html). In addition to our high incarceration numbers, we have another issue of how the prison population is being prepared for re-entry to society, and whether we are giving them needed skills and help so that they won’t end up back in the prison system. I’m a beginner in learning how learning how our country can tackle these issues, and as such, I am very interested in exploring what role I can serve in helping incarcerated men and women explore their fullest potential and successfully re-integrate back into society upon release.
Workshop, Part I
In the first hour, I led the participants through a discussion of how a composer composes. We started with the non-musical aspects, which involve using both subjectivity and objectivity to inform one’s choices, as well as making a steady stream of small decisions to ward off what I call the “two-headed dragon” of procrastination and perfectionism (I explore this concept in my Composer Inklings Blog #52: Procrastination & Perfectionism: Slaying the Two-Headed Dragon).
Next, I introduced basic music vocabulary that we used throughout the rest of the workshop: formal structure, tension/relaxation, pitch, rhythm, silence, color/timbre, dynamics, and so on. The participants immediately caught on to the idea of formal structure when I demonstrated how the tune Happy Birthday is constructed. We then applied our newly learned terminology by analyzing the text and formal structure of my choral piece Give Me Hunger (we listened to Chanticleer’s rendition of the piece). By the end of the first hour, the participants were grasping the concepts we had discussed thus far and asking great questions to further their understanding.
Workshop, Part II
The second hour proved to be very inspirational. I informed the group that we were going to create a piece using graphic notation, which we’d then perform ourselves. At that moment, they transformed into students you’d find in any classroom anywhere in the world – first, they were concerned and unsure of taking part, then they progressively warmed up to the idea, and eventually took ownership of the exercise. On the chalkboard, I drew a graph of a piece that started with relatively high tension and lots of chaos. About two-thirds of the way through the graph, there was a silence, followed by a quiet, orderly ending in which the participants could choose to whistle or hum. While the participants started off reserved in their vocal realizations of the piece, they eventually began making suggestions for improvements: what would happen if we start with the highest tension found in the piece? What does it sound like if you whistle and hum at the same time? What if the tension slowly winds down from chaos to order instead of having an instant drop in the tension level? We experimented, analyzed our results, loosened up, experimented some more, and made quite a boisterous commotion in the process.
Homework for next visit
The final order of business was the assigning of homework for my next visit. I’ll be returning to the Danville Correctional Center on September 26th, where we will have a 3-hour event called “Messages to Gaia.” The movements of my String Quartet No. 3: Gaia will performed (hopefully by live musicians if we can secure permission; otherwise, we will play a recording), as well as my solo woodwind piece Phoenix Rising. Between movements of these works, the participants will be reading texts from my oratorio Terra Nostra penned by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wendell Berry, and Walt Whitman, among others. For the first part of the homework assignment, the participants each chose what readings they’d like to give at the September concert. For the second part, I informed them that everyone is to create something for our concert. This can be a piece of art, a poem or short story, their own graphic notation piece that they will teach the audience, or anything else they would like to do. The participants were a bit unsure of the assignment, so we talked about various options they could explore. They have a few months to work on their projects, and I am excited to see what they produce!
Thank you Rebecca Ginsburg, Director of the Education Justice Project, and René Francisco Poitevin, Director of EJP’s Academic Programs, for making arrangements for me to visit the prison, as well as David Sharpe, the Co-Coordinator of the Mindfulness EJP discussion group, and Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra’s Executive Director Gerri Kirchner for both accompanying me to the prison. Special thanks to David Sharpe for asking me in September 2017 if I’d be interested in doing some workshops within EJP as part of my orchestral residence; his inquiry has resulted in a meaningful experience for us all.