The Laughing Goat

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The tuning began and a small part of the audience erupted into laughter. Eight residents of Walker State Faith and Character Based Prison were sitting in the front row of the audience, laughing with their violin instructor who was on stage standing with her husband, a guitarist. Tuning.

Two hours earlier in the rehearsal, violinist and instructor Mary Margaret Neel joked with the violin class of prisoners that her guitarist husband would take “forever to tune.”

This rehearsal was the first time I’d seen the violin class since I started it back in September of 2022. I had been updated by Mary Margaret throughout the year about achievements, exciting improvements, and the general vibe of the class. It was a goal of Arts Capacity to invite the class to perform with us during our Spring concert, so I entered Walker State Prison two hours early, the day of our concert, to rehearse the group piece.

It was wonderful to see the confidence in the players, the support each offered to one another, and the general camaraderie. Eight vastly different individuals gathering to create art together reminded me of the power that music has, the fun and genuine sense of belonging that performing together can create.

It was clear early in the 2-hour rehearsal that we didn’t need the full two hours. The men were well prepared. They were fluent in counting, note reading, pitch correction, and ensemble playing. The remainder of the time turned into a Q and A session with Mary Margaret, pianist/composer Tim Hinck, and me. We talked about technique, how to practice, and the art of tuning. This is the point where Mary Margaret warned the class that at the concert her husband was going to take a very long time to tune and she was trying to encourage him to tune faster!

As the class got more comfortable, one of the men said to Mary Margaret, “Hey, did you tell Holly about the Laughing Goat?”

This led the conversation to a moment in a class a few months back where one of the violinists lost control of his bow and it bounced on the string, sounding like a laughing goat…according to a peer. The class began to mimic the new “technique,” all while laughing about how funny it sounded. To me, this was exactly what group music practices should do: create space of creativity, bonding, and fun.

I loved the idea of “Laughing Goat” and suggested that maybe we find a composer to write a tune for the class with that title and technique!

After dinner, the concert began. The theme or topic of the concert was Peace in Music. Nothing specific, just a nod to how Peace might fit into each programming choice. Tim Hinck and I performed first, then Mary Margaret and her husband Alejandro Olson took the stage to share some violin and guitar duos.

The tuning began. The laughter in the front row caused Mary Margaret to pause. She then explained the inside joke to everyone in the audience. The entire concert space joined in with hearty laughter, and Alejandro, like a pro, kept fine tuning as Mary Margaret included everyone in the joke, “This piece is called ‘Tuning,’ she said, while Alejandro continued. They shared three duos to a very happy and included audience.

At last, it was time for the group performance. Composer Jack Wilds, who was there in person for this concert, wrote a piece for violin solo, 8 violins playing accompaniment, and piano. The men gathered on stage, took their seats, and I joined in their accompaniment group. Mary Margaret and pianist Tim Hinck set the piece in motion along with a conductor to help the violinists keep time. Their entrances were spot on, clean, in tune, and energetic! The world premiere of Jack’s composition, Peace in Bloom, received an immediate standing ovation from the entire audience, including the prison’s Warden!

To say I was proud of the efforts and accomplishments of the violinists is an understatement. Their dedication and commitment to helping build each other, finding ways to increase practice times, and playing precisely in the ensemble was nothing short of wonderful. It was a reminder to the professional musicians on stage that music is a very special place where different personalities, ages, and backgrounds can build beauty, community, and joy without anything but willpower.

Unfortunately, we were not allowed any kind of recording within the prison walls, but I strongly urge music teachers to check out Jack’s piece and to check back with Arts Capacity in the future for updates. No doubt we’ll be doing more, creating more, sharing more through music. We’re also hoping to expand the current violin program to accommodate more residents. It’s working, and that’s the best feeling! Now, to find a composer who can write a tune for violin ensemble called “Laughing Goat!”

To donate and help support Arts Capacity, please visit our website!

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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