In the course of my long and unconventional career, I’ve had the good fortune to lead music workshops with mimes in Maine, hippies on an Oregon commune, Zen monks, Community Food Store workers, Apple Computer business managers, jazz musicians, modern dancers, random folks at birthday parties and weddings, elders in Senior Centers, children in hospital cancer wards, deaf kids, teachers and kids in some 45 countries. But yesterday was the first time I led a class in jail.
Aaron, a music teacher colleague I know, has been working with a group of women at the SF County Jail on Bryant Street and following through on my expressed interest, he invited me to join him and another musician Naomi who had previously worked with many of the same women. It wasn’t the usual class format, but a kind of Holiday Party with music. We were the music, but with the intention that they would be also.
Instead of the usual circle, the women, all dressed in orange, were seated at long tables. At first glance, any one of them could have been my neighbor or colleague. Though I’d be fascinated to hear their stories, the story I read on their faces was simply one of making a bad choice at a bad time and getting caught. Could have been any one of us there. My thought was that on one level, the story matters and if I worked with them continuously, it would be part of that work. On another level, it doesn’t matter at all. Here we are, in this moment, in this place, with voices and bodies and minds and hearts and spirit— let’s play!
Taking advantage of the tables, I opened up the proceedings by teaching them Table Rhythms. I watched carefully to see who participated and how and when they dropped out from frustration and who was leading and who was following—in short, the exact same thing I look at with kids— and calibrated my pace and plan accordingly. Naomi said some poignant and stirring words to greet them and sang a soulful song, with Aaron accompanying on cajon. I started playing some Holiday Songs on the keyboard and they were as happy to sing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as they were to sing the more serene Silent Night and the more soulful contemporary repertoire that Naomi brought to the mix. Things led into some hot jamming on various drums, a spirited “Roll Call” improvised little rap and more. And we went on uninterrupted for almost two hours.
At the end, Naomi asked me what it was like for me to work in a woman’s jail. Without hesitation, I said, “Home territory. They were as willing as any group to jump in and try things and maybe it meant more to them and maybe it didn’t. The things we love about music— its challenge, its comfort, its way of connecting with others, its invitation to let our soul out and sing our story—are the same for all people in all places in all times. Truth be told, I haven’t yet taught in a situation that didn’t feel right. If I ever had the opportunity, probably the most challenging group of all to work with would be a bunch of male Republican senators. And that’s the truth!”
Thanks to Aaron and Naomi and these lovely women. It was an honor and a privilege.
P.S. If anyone wants to organize the Orff workshop for Congress, I’m in!