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