Allowing Voices To Be Heard


It’s been nearly a month since performing a recital in Walker State Faith and Character Based Prison. The experience was no doubt memorable, but after finally reading all of the surveys prisoners filled out and notes jotted down by prisoner mentor, Alan Bonderud, it was clear we had something uniquely special.

The reoccurring theme on the prisoners’ surveys was the impact they felt sharing their emotions or interpretations while experiencing each musical work. There was a distinct value placed on the living composers works and that sentiment was also mentioned a number of times within the surveys.

According to the surveys, it was as important to have an open discussion after each piece as it was to include living composers’ works on the recital. For the survey responses, the phrase It was nice allowing our voices to be heard kept appearing over and over again.

Prisoners’ experiences and reactions varied with each piece, but the frequent statement of the importance of sharing one’s emotion and one’s impression was extraordinary and meaningful.

Likewise, it was important to have the living composers’ voices heard. From the survey responses, the phrase I liked being introduced to modern composers’ works was another common reaction. For living composers, there can often be obstacles or frustrations when a new piece is written. The work can be promptly ignored or poo-pooed by the public or performers because it is new and/or unfamiliar. Getting these works played was allowing for voices on both sides of the spectrum to be heard, and that is exactly what music should do.

The comments on the surveys indicated a profound connection with what the living composers wrote, more so than the Bach I also included during the recital. Stories, emotions, impressions all seemed much deeper with works by composers Marc Mellits, Jim Stephenson, and Jennifer Higdon.

The living composers’ voices were heard very distinctly that evening, and point counterpoint, the prisoners’ voices were heard as well. Our musical conversation is just the beginning into finding relevance and meaning in all of our emotions. And as human beings, that is exactly what we all need.

For all works on the program, I played a small sample to get ears and minds primed. A brief discussion of prisoners’ emotional take or impressions of the works were shared. Fostering an open discussion like that puts Walker State Prison apart from the stereotypical prison scene. Below are a few impressions taken from the surveys and notes during the discussions.

[box type=”note” icon=”none”]For Marc Mellit’s work, Zubrowka, prisoners described happiness, like a kitten chasing a butterfly. One prisoner said it sounded like his nine-year-old daughter endlessly chattering, and another envisioned running freely in the woods occasionally stopping for soul searching moments.[/box]

[box type=”note” icon=”none”]For Jim Stephenson’s cadenza from his violin concerto, Tributes, there were a couple of stories from a few men. One stated that listening to the three minutes took him on a journey from his childhood. He was young again, learning to ride a bicycle and his father was constantly encouraging him. He would fall off and his father kept saying, get back up! By the end of the cadenza it was success, the prisoner described riding successfully but then shared that his father had passed away a few years back and this music made him joyful at first with the memory, but then nostalgic.[/box]

[box type=”note” icon=”none”]Jennifer Higdon’s work, Nocturne from her String Poetic sonata, brought out the most amazing coincidence. On one half of the room sat prisoners, on the other half sat some of our Chattanooga Symphony patrons, board members, and executive director.

While I played Nocturne, there was the same impression, unsolicited and unknown from a member of each side of the room.

One prisoner felt his mother’s presence.

“I lost my mother in November,” he wrote. “It made me feel terrible knowing I was not by her side. This music was like a dream of her, like I see her, she tells me it’s OK and she says, ‘I’m ok.’ I felt real comfort in that.”

But the most amazing similarity was being experienced on the other side of the room.

After the recital, Jean Hawkins said she wanted to share with me her impression of the Nocturne, but would have to write it down because it was an incredibly emotional moment for her. With her permission, I will share the note:

This is a little background on what transpired for me on Saturday evening, April 2, 2016 at Walker State Prison during the concert presented by Holly Mulcahy.

I am a visual artist and am taking a year-long art class online.  The assignment last week was to visualize an image of “our lady of compassion.” It was to be a visual with no particular religious or spiritual influence, but that could be acceptable if it was what “came” as part of the vision.  As the vision came, there was to be healing or forgiveness of self for burdens carried. I did not have time to actually do the lesson that week, nor was I particularly inclined to participate in the lesson.

When I was enjoying the wonderful music that Holly presented that evening, the art lesson was the farthest thing from my mind.  As Holly began the Nocturne by Jennifer Higdon staying on the one note played so expressively, my mind engaged in a vision that became for me – my lady of compassion.  I felt I was washing dishes at my sink in the twilight of evening, enjoying the smells of early spring, damp earth, fragrances of flowers I could not identify, and the peace of the evening.  My mother, who passed away four years ago, appeared to me quietly and gently just as she was when she left, with her very thick glasses, lovely white hair and warm smile.  She came to me and took my hand, leading me to the kitchen table where we had tea. She stroked my hand quietly and said, “I am very happy and well where I am now, and I do not want you to carry the guilt that causes you pain anymore. You took good care of me in my last years and there is no place for the guilt you feel.” It was a beautiful time with her. Then she disappeared into the evening light. It felt like I had spent quite a while with her but it was only for the duration of this piece. It was very hard to come back to the place where I was sitting!

The comments the inmates made in response to the piece were startlingly honest and revealed much healing emotionally.  I was amazed as one man said he had experienced a similar vision to mine, seeing his mother, resolving some hard things with her, and her gentle departure at the end of the piece.

The entire concert was so well presented and excellently performed.  Words cannot completely convey what I felt and what I continue to feel as a result of this experience. As one inmate expressed to me, “it was beautiful and sad, it hurt but in a good and healing way.”  I believe all who participated are changed by the experience and received a lovely gift in the music performed.

I am not sure how this will all transfer into my art but I am sure with more soaking in the vision, the art will come.  I am very thankful to have been at this concert and to have heard this piece in particular!


Allowing the voices to be heard turned out to be the unofficial theme of the evening. Prisoners, living composers, and even a gentle maternal voice was felt. The power that music has is boundless, especially if it is not restricted with agenda or insincerity. We humans just need to be present and curious; amazing things happen when one listens with an open heart and mind.

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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9 thoughts on “Allowing Voices To Be Heard”

  1. Holly, such a great concert, and such a fruitful outcome. Congratulations and thank you for sharing. Those of us in music “know” the power, transcendence, and connection, but we have to be reminded sometimes that it extends to all of us as humans. Glad that the voices were heard.

  2. What a wonderful service to prison inmates! No one is immune from the heart-softening influence of music. In future posts, I would like specificity as to place and time. Thank you! Marjorie Volkel

  3. Holly, thank you for sharing details of the event at WSP-FCB so faithfully. With Marilyn, my wife, I was a participant. You know I also serve as a mentor there and am engaged in prisoner redemption, reconciliation, and restoration. We’ve never seen anything like what you did in a prison setting or in any other setting, for that matter. What your friends may not know is how selflessly you devoted six months of thought and planning to it. You engaged in small-group gatherings to talk this through. In a pre-recital event you and several of the symphony leadership team met with the Warden and staff to discuss ground-rules and desired outcomes. This was not entertainment. It is not this prison’s business to entertain men but to create the environment in which they can learn to thrive and eventually succeed upon release. By the time you began talking and playing your first note, there was no doubt this would be something all of us would remember forever.

    Gauging prisoners’ reactions over the past few weeks, I know that much good was accomplished in their hearts and spirits. What made it extra special is they knew you did not have to be there. Prisoners can spot a phony a mile away. You are no phony. You wanted to be there, not for yourself – merely to tick the box. You were there for them. Not many persons will devote prime time to prisoners whom many call ‘the least of these’. But it is precisely because you made much of them, that you got past the first line of the prisoners’ emotional defense. Yes, music matters. Sure, Higdon, Stephenson, and Mellits are fantastic. I am certain, however, it was because of your uncritical approach and demeanor that the music was able to reach the men. Now, they want more. Let’s do it.

    Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

  4. Hi Holly,

    I am sorry that I was not able to be at that concert at Walker State. My wife was ill, and with two little girls at home, I needed to be there with them. I wanted to share something with you that you probably already know, or if not, suspect. There is a reason that the theme of the importance of being able to share their thoughts and feelings was so prominent among the prisoners. Long-term incarceration does several things in prisoners. First, the system screams at them that their thoughts, opinions, views, etc. don’t matter; that they are worthless. This continues when they step out into society after paying their debt and society says, “you are not welcome here”. What you are doing is telling these men that their voice, their opinions matter, and that is extremely important in rehumanizing them.

    Secondly, prison is not a “safe place” to share one’s thoughts. It is a place where kindness is mistaken for weakness and one must put a shell around one’s self in order to exist in the hardened environment that prison is. Music, especially the way you have played it and brought it to Walker, is a medium where men are able to cry, cheer, and simply feel.

    It is no secret that Walker State Prison is one of the most special, if not THE most special prison in this country. What you are doing there adds to it in ways you cannot imagine. You and those who play with you in the prison are affecting these men for the rest of their lives through music and the voice that you are giving them.

    For this I am most thankful…

    Mark Casson


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