In concert halls, a familiar scenario unfolds with remarkable consistency: some of the audience will approach a classical concert with trepidation. They often mention the same things, “I’m not sure if I’m listening correctly,” or, “I read the program notes but I’m not sure if I could detect the intricacies mentioned in the notes.”
I hear this a lot from patrons. There is a desire to follow perceived rules, to be correct and proper, and assume that program notes are the key to enlightenment and acceptance. However, people learn and listen differently so there is always a good percentage of people who feel a disconnect to a concert.
Program notes, pre-concert talks, and educational videos cater to some, but certainly aren’t for everyone. The fact that so many people seek rules to attend a concert is restricting the very art that should be freeing them.
There is no right or wrong way to experience a concert. Despite this, the desire for self-imposed rules persists, creating an environment where newcomers often feel anxious or as though they are missing something essential or going about the whole experience wrong.
Ironically, it was during a prison concert this past November that I experienced the freedom that many concertgoers might lack.
My organization, Arts Capacity, deliberately refrains from providing extensive program notes or historical information. Instead, we extend an invitation for residents of the prison to interpret the music as they see fit, allowing their imaginations to roam freely to meet their emotions on the deepest level.
Occasionally we might mention a small tidbit to listen for, but typically we suggest that there are no wrong ways to listen to the music. We also share that there will be a discussion after each work.
We’ve found that this approach fosters curiosity and offers a deeper sense of ownership and agency within the prison walls. It also serves as a platform for prisoners to share their musical interpretations, which encourages community building and empathy.
We’ve received amazing observations from every prison concert we’ve produced. Prisoner’s comments range from finding spiritual meanings, to feeling family connections, to visualizing landscapes when listening to music. During this most recent concert, one prisoner took to heart the invitation to experience the concert on his own terms.
The interpretation shared during the discussion following the 3rd movement of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet was particularly poignant. The quintet of musicians, all members of the Wichita Symphony, sat on the prison stage, completely captivated by this beautiful narrative. What the prisoner experienced from listening to the Brahms was what I wished most free audiences could experience. He said this:
“I imagined a family with young kids finding a stray dog. The dog brought the family much joy. As the dog grew, it would get into trouble, it caused mischief, but all was all fine. The family took the mischief with love. They found this dog gave them good stories and smiles. After the kids had grown and left for college, the little stray dog who brought smiles passed away. The kids would return from college and the family would remember, with joy and love, their amazing stray rescue dog. And even though it was sad, the memories brought the family even closer.”
The story shared by the prisoner during the Brahms performance was beyond anything I could have envisioned in a million years. It was a genuine gift to hear such a unique interpretation. What struck me was how meticulously his narrative mirrored the traditional program notes about the form, structure, and intention of the music.
This prisoner had the freedom and the invitation to let the music completely interweave with his imagination. It made me wonder if the free concertgoers could feel the same liberty to stray from prescribed program notes.
Children seem comfortable owning their creativity without shame or consequence of social standing. Why do many adults in classical concerts feel they must follow certain ways to listen? Could there be occasions where orchestras say, “Here’s a piece for you. There are no wrong answers. What feelings come up? What stories or visions do you see? And if you don’t feel or visualize anything, that’s ok too. Let’s talk about it after the concert!”
Within prison walls, all things are amplified including dehumanization, obstacles, challenges, and feelings. But so is creativity and imagination when it finds an outlet. Prisoners are not merely showing up to concerts for social standing or because it’s the right thing to do. Concerts provide prisoners with the opportunity to amplify positive and constructive feelings, creating a space for inward reflection and unleashing creativity. Every prisoner showing up is there with an open mind, embracing curiosity with a sense of nothing to lose.
But there’s a hidden importance for making space for creative thoughts and imagination. The use of imagination and creative thoughts are an important form of “play” that psychologists link to social bonding, anxiety reduction, and enhanced communication. The positive outcomes of this practice are becoming increasingly evident as we collect data from concert to concert. This emphasis on creativity becomes crucial in the process of re-humanizing prisoners before they return to society.
One thing I’ve enjoyed about these prison concerts is that occasionally I’ll bring in a small audience from the outside. Sitting shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with the art, outsiders learn new ways to interpret the music, new ways to listen and so very often, they take that new permission of freedom back to their own concert halls.