Pushing The Envelope
New York Prison Tour, January 2010
10 days, 9 facilities, 10 performances, 2300 miles.
585 inmates - maximum, medium, minimum, and hospital.
2 Bach Prelude and Fugues, 1 Shostakovich Cello Sonata, 2 stories, and 1 lullaby.
Tali Morgulis and I met in New York City where Tali was spending some
of the winter vacation from her teaching job at the University of
Houston. The first logistical problem was borrowing a keyboard, and
then buying a rolling case for it. The keyboard (a brand new one came
from a Swedish friend of a friend on E. 31st and the case we bought on
sale at Sam Goodys. And yes, luckily it fit in my ancient Saturn wagon
with the bass, the stool and all our luggage. We set off for my Mother’s
house in darkest central New York on January 4th. As we left Route 17
and began traversing tiny backwoods central New York roads, it began
to snow and Tali asked why there were no lights in the farmhouses.
Hmm. I don't know. Cue the creepy music.
Creepy Central New York
It stopped snowing briefly only Saturday and only quit for good the following
Wednesday when we were back in the city. Winter in my childhood home of
Hamilton in darkest Central New York came flooding back to me. It’s called lake
effect and it just keeps snowing all the time until the lake freezes; if it freezes. It’s
light and fluffy and never stops. Cue the moaning from one of the houses with no
lights on. We arrived to find my mom sitting in front of two space heaters reading.
Her furnace had quit. The workmen were conferring and heat was projected for the
next day at dinnertime. We went out to eat and then with a show of courage, Tali
agreed to brave the windy and cavernous upstairs of the old house (cue the rattling
chains) on promise of an electric blanket.
Tali tries the keyboard
We survived and the next day repaired to the basement of the Baptist church down the street to rehearse. We were not yet
thinking about the prisons. Tali was worried about making a tolerable sound with the keyboard. She did. And I was worried
about playing hundreds of notes at a swath instead of the usual several. I did. Were we crazy to be thinking of playing the
Shostakovich Cello Sonata for inmates in prison?
The next morning we left before dawn for Elmira and the maximum security prison there.
Elmira Men's Prison
It was snowing pretty hard and blowing. We were a little late and Tali
initially forgot her license (in the car at the bottom of the hill) we sped
through security and walked to the chapel (under the gym).
We were greeted by Dave Porter from last year. Then we found that there
was no extension cord for our keyboard, but they had a keyboard
unfortunately stuck in the back forcing us to set up rather far from the
audience. The inmates were already there so we began as soon as we
could. I talked and then played the prelude and fugue from the 5th suite and
then Tali talked and played a prelude and fugue from the Well Tempered
Clavier. Then we launched into the Shostakovich.
What I’ve learned in 5 years of playing in prisons is that the most important moment in a performance is when you give the
inmates a clear idea of what’s expected of them, and what they can hope to get out of the experience. The clearer I can say it,
the easier it is for them to get it. I still experiment with it and try to learn from what seems to work. Basically, it went something
“We’re going to play some music for you and if you’re open to it, it might give you some emotions you never knew you had.
You don’t need to try and understand it –nobody understands it. You don’t need to pay attention –think about anything you want
– just keep yourself open to the experience and notice if you are feeling anything. You are all alone here, having a relationship
with the music and the two musicians who are playing just for you.”
Chapel at Albion Women's Prison
After the two Bach pieces, I would say-
“You’re doing really well now we’re going to challenge you with
some of the most emotional music I know.”
I said a little about Shostakovich -being arrested by Stalin for
writing the “wrong” kind of music and how he hid anti-government
themes in his music: the fist of the secret police knocking on the
door (first movement); the steps coming upstairs at 4:00 in the
morning (coda of the first movement) and the theme of the last
movement which fooled Stalin into thinking it was an uplifting
Russian melody, but we all can hear that it’s a little off- kind of like
a doll in a horror movie. I told them of preparing to play the slow
movement on a recital in NYC by thinking of the saddest thing I
“This is heart wrenching music but sometimes hopeful. Here’s a
chance to grieve about something, or think of a lost love or think of
a love waiting for you when you get out, or just sit there and feel
the emotion. Anything you like. Here are 20 minutes to be alone
with us and the music.” We launched into the sonata.
Albion Women's Prison
We played it 10 times in all kinds of situations for different kinds of
groups including the cognitively impaired unit of the hospital at
Fishkill Men’s Prison. We could tell what was happening by the
quality of the listening. It was always amazing. In some places the
inmates were able to give us feedback. In Orleans, one guy raised
his hand and said, “You told us that something was going to
happen,” We waited. “And it did.” Another shook my hand
afterward and confessed, “I’m still trembling from the emotions.”
Most places the reaction was more in the faces glistening as they
applauded. It was different only in how deeply people were moved,
not whether they were moved at all.
Collins Men’s Prison
Of course it helps that the quality of the music was really high. Tali is the
best pianist I know and she was immediately accepted after telling her story
of being imprisoned in Israel for refusing to serve in the Army. She was
clear that it was for musical reasons and not political ones, but she still
spent 6 weeks in prison and it could have been more. During her time, she
attended some craft workshops by kind old ladies and that affected her so
much that she promised to do something some day for imprisoned people.
In two places we played for groups in which many had heard me play
before and that felt great. In Livingston, an inmate asked me afterwards,
“What was the Bach you played last year?” “The fourth suite.” “Oh yeah
right. The fourth suite. It was beautiful.”
Along the way, we were graciously hosted by Sue and Dave
Schwardt in Rochester and Dorothy and Sherry Harris in Warren
Pennsylvania, and of course by my Mother.
Did we push the envelope? Yes. What was it like? It was like giving
someone their first taste of chocolate, or showing a sunset to a
previously blind person, or transporting a midwinter darkest central
New Yorker to a moonlit beach and into the warm Caribbean sea.
Connecting to music for the first time is like that.
Groveland Men's Prison
This tour was supported in part by a grant from the
the National Endowment for the Arts.