Music brings rare beauty to prison

COMMENTNovember 8, 2011 

I am going to break my vow to never mention Sarah Palin's name in one of my columns again in order to tell a story that has nothing to do with her political career. Back when Sarah only had mayor of Wasilla and resigned member of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on her resume, a new program was beginning at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center -- a women's string orchestra, the first of its kind in Alaska and still the only one in the country. Sarah was there for one of their first Christmas concerts. So was I. She came over and introduced herself to me, apparently recognizing me from my column. We said hello, shook hands and that was it.

This year the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center Women's String Orchestra, with or without Sarah in attendance, will be performing its ninth holiday concert on Dec. 3 at 1:30 p.m. If you want to do something to get in the real spirit of the holiday season, I highly recommend you go.

A study recently showed that prisoners who had access to programs such as drug and alcohol counseling had a much better chance of not becoming revolving-door inmates. While this orchestra probably cannot produce those statistics (yet), I dare say the women who participate in it find peace and comfort in those few moments of beauty in a day that probably otherwise contains little of either.

For those fretting about their tax dollars being used to coddle inmates, let me assure you that you do not pay for this program. The people responsible for it are volunteers. The instruments are donated. The change in those women who find a piece of themselves that they didn't know existed before, a piece that holds some self-respect and pride in accomplishment, also costs the taxpayer nothing. This is a project born of belief in the power of music and the virtue of contributing to your community to make the whole stronger and better than its individual parts.

It's nice to know that spirit still exists in our society. It's even nicer to know that in this particular case, it is not a spirit born of a particular season that lasts a month and then disappears until the red and green bunting shows up in stores again next year. This project continues year round.

The orchestra has become so popular that it now has 35 members at three skill levels, plus a fiddling group. Given how hard it is as an adult to learn new things, and given that this particular population has probably not had much success in learning even in their youth, the fact that they are learning to play and love all music in such a difficult place and circumstance bodes well for their ability to find the strength to stay out of jail when their sentences end. It takes strength to face the unknown and for many of these inmates, success in something positive and good is a total unknown.

So what will you hear if you go to this concert? Well, you'll hear some professionals play. You'll know who they are because, aside from the fact that some of them will be men, they will probably sound immensely better than even the advanced members of the prison orchestra.

When the women play, you will hear varying levels of skill, all kinds of notes and possibly a few different rhythms. They aren't professionals. They are amateurs. But their hearts and souls are in every note they play as much as any devoted professional, possibly more. Because for them, these few moments of play separate the grayness of each successive day of their sentence with some color and light.

If you do nothing else this holiday season, and I know most of you will do a lot else that involves parties and food and possibly even church, please do this. Get tickets and go to this concert. Fill your heart and soul with the sound of women who have seen the bottom and now can see a little light at the top, thanks to the devotion of some die-hard musicians who believe that music can heal.

You'll hear great music and know that at least one thing you did this season is in the true spirit of the man whose birth is celebrated.


Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow. Website, www.elisepatkotak.com.

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