DANBURY FCI MUSICAL IMMERSION ACTIVITIES

WRITTEN BY DANIEL LEVY, PMHU TEACHING ARTIST

In January 2018, the Solera String Quartet under Project: Music Heals Us piloted a one-week Beethoven Intensive Residency at Danbury Federal Correctional Institution. The facility helped us recruit twenty-five men who were interested in music, a diverse group of guys who were all in a pre-release program. Most of the men playing in one of the many bands at the facility. Many of the men were intermediate players, and some had a professional level of theoretical knowledge and instrumental accomplishment.

The Quartet had kindly invited me to facilitate the workshop, which I was delighted to do. We planned various Beethoven-centric activities meant to open up the men’s curiosity about and experience of our single focal work of art, the Opus 95 String Quartet #11 in F minor. After some unexpected delays for lock-down and fog, we started with a live performance of the work. Molly, Miki, Andrew and Tricia each introduced a movement, making connections between their own personal and musical lives as well as with Beethoven’s life story and the music. This informal, intimate approach has proven popular with the incarcerated audiences that PMHU has been playing for. Each musician’s particular style of openness, responsiveness and curiosity became a useful model for the audience: I can feel this, notice this, wonder this; my personal connection with this music is valued.

After the concert (the first of two planned for the beginning and end of the week), we switched into workshop mode. To establish a sense of community, we improvised a series of spontaneous riff-driven pieces with what we had at hand: a small pile of guitars, some hand percussion, our voices, body percussion, and the quartet. The men got to know us a little, and we got to know them as we sang and soloed: creating, responding to, or mirroring and supporting the musical creations of others. Beautiful musical textures rose up out of very simple beginnings. Everyone took pleasure in taking part, smiles and praise for each others work all around – all very satisfying and easy.

Community spirit established, we started digging into the Beethoven. First we learned to sing and play the major melodic themes of each movement. Some of the men learned the melodies by rote; others leaned on the notation. But eventually we all were grappling with issues of pitch, rhythm, meter and articulation

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Interestingly, this singing of the themes became most effective, even powerful, when we sang and mimed the bowing for each melody at the same time as singing it. There was something about the physicality of the bowing, articulation, live instruments and vocalizing all coming together that made us all perform more musically and access a more visceral connection to each theme. Plus everyone seemed to enjoy playing air cello like a boss.

Our whole-body-knowledge of the thematic material became the basis for various experiments: improvisations, squiggle scores, stop-and-start interrogations of live performances of individual sections of the piece. There was a palpable sense of joy mixed in with the discipline and focus everyone was bringing to our shared exploration of the work. Of special interest was a new activity, one I had never had an opportunity to road-test before, called Hyper Focus. Here is what it looks like on the planning page:

Hyper Focus (20-30 min; possibly recurring)

·       quartet selects a 4-16 measure passage to focus on (TBD)

·       quartet spreads out a bit in the room, in four “stations”, plays the passage

·       four clumps of participants each sit very close to a single instrument and track what it does

·       discuss, play it again, discuss again

·       clumps switch instruments, then quartet repeats the play/discuss sequence with the same passage

after all four clumps have heard all four parts…

·       all discuss: compare the roles/relationships of the instruments that you observed in this passage

·       participants invited to take in the whole sound as quartet plays the passage a final time

·       all discuss: what do you notice now?

 

Hyper Focus is an active listening exercise that invites close attention to detail (supported by multiple play-throughs of a short passage). The small group discussions that arise allow many people to speak (as opposed to whole-group discussion where fewer participants have a chance to speak, and less-experienced musicians too often defer and let more-experienced guys speak first). The activity is at heart an inquiry into the nature of the work of art: the Quartet provides the energized and immediate questions, and a means of exploration, but not the answers:

What do we hear?

What do we notice?

What relationships do we notice within an individual part?

What relationships do we notice between the four parts?

Why is it like that?

What does it mean?

For our first Hyper Focus passage, we chose what Miki identified as the musical and emotional apotheosis from the fourth movement (starting at mea 110):

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The conversations that I overheard as I drifted from group to group were, from a musical and arts education point of view, delightful. Sometimes a participant would be making connections between the instrument they had observed and a personal or emotional state. Some men asked the Quartet members their opinions about the passage, others offered metaphors and interpretive imagery in response to what they’d heard. The more experienced participants would wonder out loud about the technical, theoretical or analytical aspects of the passage: range, color, bowing, counterpoint.

In all these moments I felt that the Quartet’s openness to the Hyper Focus process and our careful establishing of a creative (musically inquisitive, craft-conscious, and self-improving) community of learners (which honored both more- and less-experienced individuals equally) was paying off in a big way. The men were empowered to engage directly and personally with Beethoven, and express their questions and insights side-by-side with the musicians of the Solera Quartet, as respected and valued equals.

We returned to the Hyper Focus activity with a different passage the next day, and the work was just as deep, unpredictable, and satisfying. Can’t wait to try it again, and to return to Danbury to see how the men connect their experience in the workshop activities with their second hearing of the full Opus 95 string quartet at our final concert.

I’d like to think that any musical ensemble could use this Hyper Focus model to open up a work of art for workshop participants at any level, in any setting. For anyone interested in the way community-building effects creative work inside a correctional facility, you might enjoy reading my article The Container: Designing a Creative Atelier at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, published on Taylor & Francis Online in the latest issue of Teaching Artist Journal, Issue 3-4.  For anyone interested in Teaching Artistry, or in this community-of-learners approach to teaching and learning, please keep an eye out for my forthcoming book from Oxford University Press, A TEACHING ARTISTS COMPANION, due to be published in late 2018.

Daniel Levy, PMHU Teaching Artist

www.daniellevymusic.com

"You will never know... "

(Written by Molly Carr, PMHU Founding Director and Violist of the Solera Quartet, in response to the Solera Quartet's first week-long "Musical Immersion Residency" in Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in January 2018. In collaboration with Teaching Artist Daniel Levy, the quartet led residency participants through a week of intensive delving into Beethoven's Op. 95 String Quartet, offering composition and improvisation workshops, lecture/demonstrations, & interactive performances. The participants were encouraged to compose original musical works in response to Beethoven's Op. 95 String Quartet. The Solera Quartet and Daniel Levy return to Danbury FCI for a final day of celebration and music-making on March 6th, 2018.) 

 

The amount of anticipation packed into this moment was surreal. I could feel each of these seconds were laden with the years of struggle and love we each had put into our instruments and art; the months of meetings, clearance paperwork, phone calls, emails, more phone calls, and more paperwork to clear every string, bow hair, pencil, score, and performer past the walls of the facility and into that very room; the days of seemingly incessant fights with the universe as we pushed through delayed international flights, freak floods, history-making arctic blizzards, and finally impossibly persistent fog with all its prison security issues(!)…. but we had made it. We had made it to this moment.

As I put up the viola to my chin, about to play the first notes of the first original composition inspired from this first Musical Immersion Residency at Danbury Federal Correctional Institution, I could feel the strangely heavy weight of my arms as my heart bounced around trying to escape from the impossibly conflicted emotions chasing it around in my chest:

Exhaustion - from so many days of stretching my heart to try to fit it around 35 men, wanting so badly to wrap each and every one of them up in our love and care. 

Fear - from the unknowns that always lurk behind prison walls. 

Insecurity - with rapid-fire thoughts of “What if we didn’t give them enough to work with? What if they have something to express and we can’t figure out how to let them express it? What if all the struggles with fog and clearance made it so they didn’t have enough time to write what they wanted and they’ll leave here let down and frustrated instead of uplifted? What if…???” 

Exuberance, fulfillment, JOY! - from feeling like we finally conquered the universe’s obstacles and had made it into that classroom at long last to witness the smiles, comradery, and kindness being passed around the room. 

Pure Excitement! – “What did they create? What did they hear this week in Beethoven’s Op. 95 quartet that inspired them??!” We were about to witness works of art coming to life for the first time in history! 

The room fell completely silent. We took a single unified breath and began to play….. 

I couldn’t believe the sounds flowing out of our instruments. I looked up and around the room and could see the same look on everyone else’s faces, too… the phrasing, the colors, the timbres, the dynamics, the expression… it was all there! Wow.  I smiled, my pulse slowed, and I sank deeper into the viola strings, listening, enjoying, singing my heart and soul with the ups and downs of each phrase until the piece’s beautiful conclusion. The room exploded. Everyone was cheering, clapping, congratulating, laughing, hooting and hollering, “Play it again! Play it agaaain!!” We dove in again with gusto, experimenting this time with new colors, new timbres, searching for ways to push the tune to its expressive limits, trying out in-the-moment ideas and inspirations… And again the room exploded into applause and smiles - and as I turned to whoop and cheer for the talented composer, I suddenly wondered… what would Beethoven have thought of all this? What would he say if he knew that his music was changing and inspiring men behind prison walls centuries after his death?? If he could have witnessed this room today… 

When the clock struck 2pm, chiming the conclusion of the residency, we got up to pack up our instruments with a new set of conflicting emotions – with heavy hearts at the thought of leaving this new-found musical and creative family, but exuding lightness and fulfillment knowing and feeling beyond a doubt that something special – even if we didn’t know exactly what it was – had transpired here this week. As we shook hands and said our goodbyes, my “rhythm buddy” from all of our workshop activities throughout the week pulled me aside to softly say, “Molly, you will never know. You will never know what you’ve done here this week. I didn’t recognize this place this week. Every time I stepped outside, I came across music; people were singing, composing, collaborating. Thank you so much. You will never know what you’ve done here…” 

In the ensuing weeks of standard rehearsing, performing, traveling, etc… my thoughts kept floating back to that classroom, wondering if my rhythm buddy was still witnessing music and song and collaborations. If Beethoven’s use of motif development was still the talk of the town. If Op. 95’s intensity of emotion and Beethoven’s commitment to hope and life was still inspiring new beautiful creations. 

THREE WEEKS LATER…

As I put up the viola to my chin, about to play the first notes of the first performance of the Solera Quartet at Lincoln Center, I could feel the strangely heavy weight of my arms as my heart bounced around trying to escape from the impossibly conflicted emotions chasing it around in my chest:

Fear - from the bright lights and stares of the educated audience and all of the unknowns that always seem to lurk behind every turn of a phrase in any performance. 

Insecurity - with rapid-fire thoughts of “What if we didn’t give ourselves enough time to learn this piece? What if I miss the cello cue in measure 47? What if our recapitulation chord is not in tune and these people think we’re not good enough to play in Lincoln Center? What if…??”

Exuberance, fulfillment, JOY! – from knowing that I was exactly where I always wanted to be – making music in a string quartet. 

Pure Excitement! – “We get to play Beethoven again! We’re about to play one of the greatest works of art ever written in history and we get to perform it in Lincoln Center!” 

The room fell completely silent, and as we took a single unified breath to begin to play, I suddenly saw the excited, smiling faces of my rhythm buddy and all our residency composers and participants, heard all those hoots and hollers from just a few weeks before and remembered what it felt like to give every inch, drop, ounce, millimeter of my heart and soul to every note - not so that the audience would judge me as “Lincoln-Center-worthy,” but because it was needed. It was absolutely necessary. Anything less was just…wrong. 

I smiled, my pulse slowed, and I sank deep into the viola strings, listening, enjoying, singing my heart and soul with the ups and downs of each phrase until the piece’s conclusion. The room burst into applause and smiles - and as I turned to bow in gratitude, I found myself wondering again… what would Beethoven have thought of all this? What would he say if he knew that his music was changing and inspiring humans beyond prison walls centuries after his death?? If he could have witnessed this today…

Yes, rhythm buddy, YOU TOO, will never know what you’ve done here. Thank you so much. You will never know…