Reach Out, Listen In


When Arts Capacity first started the interactive recital idea several years ago for prison concerts, it was to foster a more engaging and inclusive way of offering a musical performance. Going into the prisons, we knew that this recital environment would be one of the very few places prisoners could access and address their feelings. It also was a time for them to share thoughts and reactions to the music, since between each piece we would have a two-way conversation about the music and how it affected them.

After each concert we would collect surveys from the prisoners to see what was liked, what impact we had, and how people felt. We also took that information to help guide our next concerts.

Prisoners would say things like, “I’ve never been asked my opinion about any performance, regardless of venue!” and, “When the music started, the prison walls disappeared.”  We also learned from the surveys that their worry and anxiety levels went down, anger and frustration were reduced, and a calming focus was enjoyed for at least the hour of music.

As the pandemic hit, Arts Capacity interactive recitals had to be paused since the prison was locked down. Actually, life everywhere was locked down as our society sheltered at home, quarantined, isolated, and confined from the world and the virus.

Listening to people describe the sudden life changes, I began to hear familiar words and phrases that were frequently spoken in the prison or written on the surveys. Phrases like, “I’m anxious and stressed every day,” and “I feel trapped,” and “I’m scared,” and “It’s hopeless,” were mentioned by colleagues, friends, neighbors, and more. These were the same phrases and feelings that were routinely expressed by the prisoners.

Realistically we know we are not in prison. We do have rights afforded to us that prisoners do not; but the feelings of anxiety, stress, hopelessness, and fear suddenly seemed universal.

Borrowing the interactive idea used with the prison recitals, an interactive recital was started over the Zoom platform in April geared for Wichita Symphony patrons. With the internet’s reach, the recital series began to impact people from coast to coast, as well.

Sharing music in the same interactive manner, the audience was initially not used to an invitation to speak their minds. After a few weeks, the open forum on the Zoom platform afforded an ability to have a two-way conversation. People began to share what images or thoughts came to mind while they were listening to a piece. It was fascinating to watch the metamorphosis of an audience who normally never gets asked their opinions to open and share a thought!

We are no different in our feelings. Our reaction to listening to music is healing on many levels. The comments that I have received from prisoners have just been replaced by people who feel imprisoned and frustrated by this pandemic.

What the interactive recital has proven, in both prisons and over Zoom, is that people find importance in connecting with music and each other. Not only that, but when they hear others expressing thoughts and feelings, there is a powerful empathetic reaction. For me, these interactive recitals are greater than the sum of their parts. Like what I’ve witnessed happening, Culture Track Report has an amazing summary of just how people feeling bored, frustrated, or isolated direct those energies through online artistic offerings. Check out those key findings here.

After we are on the other side of this pandemic, we will have learned a few things. Hopefully, we will be better listeners, better at expressing ourselves, and more empathetic: All things easily accessed and addressed by music.

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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1 thought on “Reach Out, Listen In”

  1. It amazes me that the things you learn in a prison from prisoners are the things you bring outside to benefit the society around us. I thought it was always the other way around! Thank you for helping to shatter the stereotype about prisoners. If I understand it, virtually every man and woman incarcerated today will be released. Thanks to you and like-minded individuals, you are contributing towards them being better equipped mentally and emotionally to do well when that time comes that they are outside the walls. Who can disagree with that? I’ve read that the kind of thing you are doing has proven to reduce recidivism. Please do not stop. We will support you in this in your endeavor for the benefit of many.


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