As we end this academic year, I’ve found myself lost in moments of reminiscence and nostalgia. Over the past few months, I’ve shared several of my own favorite memories, but I wanted to use this opportunity to share another memory from a different source. Throughout the year, graduating violinists Ellie MacPhee, Asher Wulfman, and other Obies were an integral part of a community outreach project that brought musical instruction to the Grafton Correctional Institute. What began as a volunteer program in the fall of 2018 soon grew to an accredited Oberlin course. I reached out to Asher via email, to gain some insight on the meaningful work this group had been doing, and was intrigued and touched by our conversation.
Asher, thank you so much for taking the time for these questions. I’m curious what made you enroll in the course?
Of course, I’m happy to share my experiences. This course evolved out of an existing volunteer program developed in 2018 by Ellie MacPhee and Rebecca Shasberger, with support from Credo Music and Oberlin. I was one of the original members of the group. We started teaching classes at Grafton Correctional Institute in September of 2018, so when the volunteer program became a course, I made sure I was able to fit it into my schedule. By that time I had already developed a special bond with the students at GCI that I wanted to continue growing.
Who taught the course, and how was it structured?
Strings at Grafton Prison is taught by Rebecca Shasberger. The course consisted of one weekly meeting in Oberlin, where we discussed readings about string pedagogy, adult learning, and the US prison system. We also tried to reserve a little bit of time for lesson planning, so we were prepared for that week's class at GCI. The following day, we met at GCI for what was meant to be a 90-minute class, although going through prison security could take anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. During this time, we worked on some ensemble pieces, pieces for each instrument, and solo pieces for each student. There were six student teachers this semester, so dividing responsibility was sometimes a challenge. Everyone got a turn leading a class and making a lesson plan.
Was there anything you took from the lectures that was particularly enlightening?
The class was more seminar style than lecture-based. There were definitely some discussions that were very memorable. One of the main teaching points of the class was determining what we were trying to accomplish at GCI. We all knew that this was about more than just teaching these men to play string instruments. However, we objected to the idea that the point was to teach the men discipline, or improve their behavior, which the rhetoric from the prison suggests is the main reason to have music classes for inmates. With every class, we re-evaluated our goals to be more pedagogically sound, more reasonable given the students' age and their setting, and better informed by our knowledge of the prison system and its shortcomings.
I'm assuming there was a fair amount of hands-on work with people from the Grafton prison; did you have any apprehensions before meeting them for the first time?
I remember being slightly nervous when I visited GCI for the first time, but after the first class I knew there was nothing to fear. The men in the class were kind, eager to learn, and extremely grateful for our time and presence.
What was the experience meeting them for the first time?
Meeting the students at GCI was really eye-opening, because I had no idea what to expect. I had never been to a prison or known anyone who was incarcerated. I was so happy to discover that they were normal people, and I did not feel at all threatened. I had so much respect for their work in class and their level of dignity despite the circumstances, that I often forgot there was a reason they were incarcerated. Whether or not this reason was warranted, I would never know, because we didn’t talk about that in class. When we were there, it was all about music and being together. It has really proved to me that music can make all differences invisible.
What was the growth you observed during the course?
The students at GCI made tremendous progress since they started in 2018. Most of them were complete beginners, although some had prior experience and others had played a variety of instruments. All of them are now able to read music to some degree, and began playing repertoire that was increasingly challenging. Their technique improved, and their attitude seemed to change as well. Starting a new instrument as an adult can be frustrating, because there is a painful sense of awareness in regards to sound production, and how the reality compares to each individual's goal. I think it took a little while for some of the men to come to terms with the fact that this was not going to be easy, and that progress would be extremely slow at first. With time, I noticed their confidence grow, and they were all proud of the work they put in to come this far. We reminded them often that the more they improved, the harder it would be to see progress, and that it was always important to remember where they started from, and maintain perspective of that overall arch of growth.
Did you build relationships with any of your pupils? How did that develop?
I feel very close to the students at GCI, and would consider each of them a friend. Teaching and learning music is such a strong bonding experience, and everyone opened themselves up to vulnerability in that space. For them, I think having a relationship with us was really special, because it broke up the monotony of their lives. We also treated them with a sense of respect that they didn’t always get from prison staff; we called them by their first names, shook their hands, asked them how they were doing, etc. I think it helped maintain their dignity, and made them feel normal. For me, meeting these men has made me so much more open to the experiences of those who I may otherwise have written off. I feel like a better listener and a more well-informed citizen after getting to know them. They were genuinely kind, funny people who brightened my week, and I was so glad to share my knowledge with them.
Did this influence your perspective of the role of a professional musician?
Teaching at GCI showed me that I have something valuable to share with the world, and that it goes so far beyond the concert hall. Performing in formal settings is vastly removed from the origins of music, which began as a social activity rather than a skill. It makes me sad to see that many people think they aren’t "good enough" to play music, when it should not be about that. It’s about making connections through music, and creating meaningful experiences of learning and shared knowledge, which can be so powerful, and have so much potential to do good for the world. Not only did these musical activities connect Oberlin students with men from different walks of life, it also brought together men in the prison who would not have spoken to each other were it not for the class. Prison tends to be a very segregated place, and several of the students expressed how happy they were to have made friends across boundaries of race, age, and prison block. While I truly enjoy the performance aspect of music and the continued commitment to mastery of the craft, I am so glad to have had this reminder that there is another side to it, and have found that I have a responsibility to share what I have learned.
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